“In America, politicians should not pick their voters; voters should pick their politicians,” President Barack Obama said earlier this month. He pointed out that neither side is free from blame. The majority party tends to think the status quo works just fine, while the minority party wants to make a change.
To the president’s point, an interesting thing happens whenever a shift in power occurs. Suddenly, those same politicians who protected the process previously find all manner of flaws that need reforming.
Last week, Vlad Kogan offered a prediction about San Diego city elections: Democrats will lose control of the City Council this year. Who is to blame? The citizens at the San Diego Redistricting Commission back in 2011, which is the exact type of model the president has been advocating. Kogan also laid blame on the communities that lobbied the commission for not understanding what is in their own best interest.
To address this problem, Kogan proposed a fundamental shift in voter representation – away from neighborhoods and communities, toward partisanship and ideology.
While the timing of these complaints is peculiar – five years after the districts were adopted – it is worth considering the practical ramifications of what Kogan proposed as a solution to this newly identified problem.
First, it may well be true that redistributing the voting power of Democratic strongholds would result in more Democrats in city office. To do this, the next redistricting commission would need to fracture a number of neighborhoods and communities south of the I-8 corridor.
For example, Mission Hills, Hillcrest or Bankers Hill could be divided between District 2 and District 3. Similarly, portions of North Park, University Heights, Kensington or Rolando could be carved off District 9 and added to District 7.
This strategy may be in the best interest of Democrat politicians. However, it is not in the interest of the neighborhoods and communities whose representation at City Hall would be diluted.
The concept of intact “communities of interest” drives the contemporary redistricting process. The term is also a hallmark achievement of the civil rights movement. The Voting Rights Act specifically prevents the redistricting process from dividing protected minorities across districts when they may otherwise comprise the majority of a single district.
Kogan’s suggestion on Voice of San Diego’s podcast that we should shift away from “descriptive representation” toward “substantive representation” (which could also easily be called “partisan representation”) ignores both the dangers of moving away from descriptive representation as well as the legality under the Voting Rights Act.
Keeping communities of interest intact is important to San Diego beyond just complying with federal law. For example, our city has been a leader in LGBT representation in elected office. Toni Atkins, Christine Kehoe and Todd Gloria all benefited from districts being drawn with the intent to give a strong, unified voice to the LGBT community. Carving off votes from Hillcrest to make it easier for a Democrat to represent Clairemont comes at the expense of LGBT voting power. If split between two districts, Hillcrest could find itself representing less than 7 percent of either district.
More generally speaking, we all belong to communities of interest, if defined as simply as a geographic neighborhood, shared neighborhood businesses, a school cluster or a park and recreation center. The complex and imperfect patchwork of communities makes this city the diverse place we love, and those community-based interests are what drive the vast majority of civic debate.
Before we trade in those community interests for partisan interests, we should carefully ask why. Is it really so terrible to have a moderate coastal Republican instead of a moderate coastal Democrat in District 1? Is the City Council really so broken that we need to radically rethink how we are represented? Would turning redistricting into a partisan, gerrymandered exercise really improve life for the average San Diegan?
The answer is no.
Ryan Clumpner is a San Diego-based political consultant who works closely with the local business community. Clumpner’s commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.