When Joe Simitian ran for state Senate in 2004 he discovered that his district "resembled an old-fashioned telephone handset," as he described it at the time.
One end encompassed Midpeninsula communities, including his home base of Palo Alto, where he was deeply rooted and well-known.
Welcome to "gerrymandering." That is a term coined in the 1800s to describe a widespread technique used primarily to exclude certain types of voters from a political district. It can be local, regional, state-level or national. It can be a form of ethnic or racial discrimination (illegal) or as a way to protect the jobs of incumbent politicians (not illegal, according to a recent court ruling) or a political party. (Wikipedia has an excellent entry on history, types, effects and remedies for gerrymandering.)
Simitian had to work extra hard to get himself known at the south end of his district. Later termed out, he successfully ran for the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, succeeding Liz Kniss, who now serves on the Palo Alto City Council, again. This political musical-chairs is not gerrymandering but a result of the term-limit rule enacted years back.
But Simitian's experience goes much deeper than his Senate district. When he was elected to the state Assembly in 2000, following terms on the Palo Alto Board of Education and the City Council, he took office "just in time for reapportionment and redistricting" to surface according to an every-10-year requirement.
New district maps were being drawn in his first year in office. There was "a certain sense of urgency" due to a primary election coming up in June 2002, he recalled in a telephone interview. To push things along, someone handed out maps of the new districts in the Assembly one day. All regular business came to a halt while each member studied the boundaries of his or her own district.
The system then was that the Assembly was responsible for redistricting the Assembly and the state Board of Equalization, and the state Senate was responsible for itself and Congressional district boundaries.
Simitian was "hoping to run for state Senate, Byron Sher's old seat" in the 11th State Senate District, so he had an interest in both houses of the state Legislature.
Yet it was "hard to make the case that San Carlos and Capitola were part of the same community of interest," he observed.
The result of the 2002 boundaries was to "preserve the status quo," with a healthy majority for Democrats.
"There is no more political act than establishing district boundaries," Simitian said. Even when done fairly, "by its nature there are winners and losers, sometimes between and sometimes within parties."
Yet when such boundaries are manipulated for personal, political or other purpose -- as in the classic definition of gerrymandering -- they begin to subvert the very nature of democracy, to betray the concept that voting citizens should decide on a so-called (possibly mythical) "level playing field."
Witnessing such manipulations in his first Assembly term, "I became an advocate for redistricting reform," Simitian recalled.
Gerrymandering has a major inherent effect that subverts the democratic process, he said: "Instead of voters selecting elected officials, it allows officials to pick their own voters. There's an inherent conflict in that exercise."
Gerrymandering in California has come under significant control by way of a 14-member California Citizens Redistricting Commission established by voters in 2008 and active in 2011. Its purpose is to assure fair redistricting, along lines of logical boundaries along "communities of interest."
Such a desire for compact, fairly balanced districts is not new. Long-ago Menlo Park Mayor Ira Bonde about a half-century ago proposed that Midpeninsula communities (with strong economic and social interconnections) form a new, contiguous, compact county and voting district. That idea was ridiculed by other local politicians and dubbed "Bonde County."
Yet the logic of such compact districts has hung on, despite self-interest and political pressures. Other states have or are considering such commissions. Yet resistance has come from local sources and both major political parties, such as the regional reapportionment-manipulation efforts by Democrats John and Phil Burton decades back or more recently by Republican strategist Karl Rove's reported efforts to solidify Republican power once and for all.
There can be a numbers game, such as when a couple of inner-city districts are created to lump certain groups (racial, ethnic or political) to pull them out of surrounding districts so the result would be a half-dozen solid-conservative suburban districts, outnumbering the couple of inner-city or sure-liberal districts. Such "cracking and packing" is common in racially motivated redistricting.
A more subtle but even more dangerous-to-democracy effect is to undermine voter confidence that their individual votes count. This deadly political virus contributes to low election turnouts and decisions that benefit special interests more than any broad public interest.
Such gerrymandering "can only exacerbate the cynicism of voters. That is a rigged system!" Simitian said, echoing current political rhetoric.
Yet, for some reason, none dare call such voter manipulation treason, or even anti-democratic.
In 2010, Republicans at the national level focused intently on statehouses and state legislatures, while Democrats essentially were asleep at the switch, Simitian observed.
Gerrymandering and its effects are still rampant nationally. And technology is making it more effective, hence worse, in many ways. There's even a computer program called Maptitude that enables creation of incredibly precise boundaries, with virtually block-by-block precision for inclusion/exclusion of types of voters.
This should be a key issue debated at all levels during our political seasons, right up there with global warming, sustaining a strong economy with good jobs, and raising a well-educated, involved next generation -- not who's the biggest liar, cell-phone abuser or profiteer.