WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING, CALIFORNIA MADE NEW ELECTION LAWS

Richard Reeves

LOS ANGELES -- William F. Buckley once said this: "I'd rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University."

A great populist call from a man who, thank goodness, was no populist. But the thought rings through American politics today. Sarah Palin, no Buckley she, is the current spokesman for the attitude that the problem with American politics is that there are too many smart and informed people running the country. She is the champion of the ordinary, as a onetime Nebraska senator named Roman Hruska was for the mediocre.

If you remember, and I suppose few do, in 1970, Hruska defended the nomination of G. Harrold Carswell, a strikingly unqualified choice for the United States Supreme Court, by saying: "Even if he were mediocre, there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren't they, and a little chance? We can't have all Brandeises, Frankfurters and Cardozos."

Well, California decided to test that thesis. A majority of voters approved a proposition denying the right of the state legislature to draw the boundaries of legislative and congressional districts. From now on, the districts will be drawn by 14 ordinary citizens, men and women whose names have been drawn from a hat -- not exactly a hat, just one of those spinning cages full of pingpong balls they use in lotteries.

The devils of politics have always been in the details, and in recent American politics the details have been jiggered to favor incumbent congressmen and state legislators, many of them charmingly mediocre. They had the power, and still do in most states, to craftily craft districts to make it difficult to unseat incumbents of either party. In other words, American election laws are basically a contract between the Democrats and Republicans in office to preserve each other and keep outsiders where they belong, outside. Election rules. Ballot designs. Voter registration. All these things were designed to protect incumbents against ordinary voters.

No more in California. Proposition 20 in this month's election won the approval of 50.9 percent of voters. The proposition completed a series of ballot measures mandating that election districts -- from school boards to Congress -- will be redrawn by 14 randomly selected citizens. There were 30,000 applicants for these $300-a-day jobs, and the lottery wheel spun for the first time last Thursday and the first balls that popped out named eight of the 14: a bookstore owner, an attorney, a retired engineer, a marketing consultant, a caregiver, an insurance executive, a guy who tracks consumer trends and an activist who represents low-income tenants. They will select the other six members of the Citizens Redistricting Commission.

Next, the commission -- five Republicans, five Democrats and four independents -- will look at the maps they've made and vote again. This time nine of the 14 members must approve the final district lines.

That not-so-little revolution will complement another proposition that last year mandated all California primaries will be open. Democrats, Republicans, independents and oddballs of various kinds will all be on the same ballot, and the top two finishers, even if they are in the same party, will run off against each other in the same general election. That system has been used in various Southern states in the past, but the official Citizens Commission is another California innovation.

Will it work? Probably not. But it is politically exciting to live in a state that will try anything. There are a lot of Californians who think that the problem with things like tea-partying are that they are just too moderate.

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