Could California's noble experiment in redrawing legislative and congressional districts be collapsing? It's the obvious question — albeit one still without an answer — because the new Citizens Redistricting Commission has decided to skip publication of a second draft of redistricting maps and, in effect, take the process behind semi-closed doors as it nears a deadline for final maps.

The first set of draft maps drew sharp criticism from Latino rights groups for sidestepping the federal Voting Rights Act requiring that underrepresented groups be given what amounts to affirmative action to maximize their ability to elect legislative and congressional members.

Ever since, the commission has struggled to meet those criteria while complying with state laws calling for districts to be compact, recognize "communities of interest," and follow, where possible, city and county boundaries.

As the commission was meeting last week, pressures of the legal and interest group demands, and the tight time frame for releasing final maps, were obvious. There was a frenetic quality as district lines were moved here and there.

On Monday, Republican redistricting guru Tony Quinn published an Internet essay contending that the commission was "beset by rebellious consultants and manipulated by partisans" and its instructions to its staff were resulting in increasingly bizarre districts that reflected the partisan agendas of individual commission members.

The commission itself said only that it was forgoing the second set of drafts "in order to produce the best district maps possible" and added, "The commission will be posting visualizations of proposed districts, and make equivalency files available for organizations and news outlets to provide greater detail to the public on the visualization proposals. The visualizations are proposed options for districts and are considered and discussed by the commission at their meetings instructing the line drawers."

The "visualizations" — rough maps without detail or data — are difficult guides at best to what's intended, and they are being constantly changed as the 14 commission members push to move individual pockets of voters here and there to equalize districts' populations and meet the many legal and political demands.

The potential Achilles' heel of this commission has always been the ability of amateurs to master the legal, demographic and ultimately political dissonances of such a huge, complex state and produce maps that are not only legal and fair but meet the smell test.

If it fails, it probably would fall to the state Supreme Court to pick up the pieces and do the job itself, which it has done twice in the last four decades.

That wouldn't be a bad outcome, since the court did so after the 1970 and 1990 censuses with dispatch and demonstrable fairness.

Dan Walters is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee. Email him at