When it Comes to Mapping, Cleanliness is Overrated

Until last week, California's citizens redistricting commission looked mostly like a noble, ineffective experiment -- and, as a body that has a political duty but is not legally permitted to be political,  a good source of light comedy for bloggers.

After all, the way Californians have sorted themselves into communities of the like-minded, the commission couldn't create many more competitive districts, or change the politics of California, even if it tried.

That view now looks awfully sanguine.

A series of reports about problems with the commission -- including the news on a conservative web site that one of the commissioners made an undisclosed donation to a Democrat -- has the potential to cause damage far beyond redistricting.

The commission and its stained reputation could muddy the reputation of the good government groups that have backed it -- and thus the cause of broad reform in California.

Those groups have long said, correctly, that reform must be non-partisan. They have embraced the concept of using regular citizens to do the work of reform.

The redistricting commission was a test of both these concepts.

But it appears that partisanship has creeped into the commission -- despite the attempt to get regular citizens involved.

Politicians and activists on the right are screaming betrayal -- which is bad news since those on the right will have to be part of the broader constitutional reform California needs.

There are many lessons here for the foundations and good government organizations backing reform.

Here's a central one: Be careful not to oversell.

The commission was represented as a force for cleaning up politics, even though politics is by its nature dirty.

It was inevitable that the commission would look political, particularly when judged against promises that the body would be hyper-sanitized against politics.

It's probably not a good idea to spend so much time building structures to guarantee non-partisanship and citizens' participation.

Cleanliness is overrated.

In fact, it might be easier and wiser -- as a political and policy matter -- to develop an approach to reform that engages partisans and harnesses partisan energies to fix problems.

California's partisans, after all, are its most involved citizens.

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