Redistricting Reform: Reality or a pipedream?

by Tony Quinn
Nov. 28, 2004
The results of the 2004 election may well spawn an election in 2005. If rumors are to be believed, Gov. Schwarzenegger is seriously exploring one or more ballot measures for a special election in 2005. Under the rubric of “government reform,” Schwarzenegger may go to the voters with proposals from his Performance Review Commission, and possibly other aspects of “blowing up the boxes of government”.

The most contentious reform, however, would not just blow up government boxes; it would blow up political boxes as well. That’s the proposal to take the power of redistricting out of the hands of the legislature, give it to a nonpartisan panel, and have them redraw California’s legislative and congressional district lines mid-decade. The governor’s political team is exploring placing this reform before the voters in a late 2005 special election.

In 2004, California voters filled 153 legislative and congressional offices, and the number of partisan offices that changed parties was exactly zero: 153 districts were up and 153 districts stayed with the same party as before the election. This was hardly an accident; California’s districts were heavily gerrymandered in a sweetheart deal both parties made in the 2001 reapportionment to preserve the status quo.

This has become the source of considerable frustration for the business community. Even though the people have cast pro-business votes on ballot measures – 2004’s shakedown lawsuit measure, Proposition 64, and the health care mandate referendum, Proposition 72, being good examples – the legislature is tone deaf and remains in lockstep behind the tax and spend lobby. The gerrymandered districts prevent any real change in the legislature.

A number of business interests are encouraging the governor to go to the voters with redistricting reform in 2005. However, this may not be as easy as it seems. For one thing, the next primary is now set for June 2006. For new districts to be effective for that primary, a new districting plan would need to be drafted and qualified for a special election that would need to occur no later than November 2005. Then presumably retired judges or some other disinterested parties would have to hold public hearings and adopt new district lines. They would need to be pre-cleared by the US Justice Department for four California counties, and candidates would need time to file for office. While not impossible, this is a very tight time line.

A second consideration is the long history of unsuccessful redistricting reform initiatives. Since 1982, Republicans have put forth four initiative measures to take redistricting out of the hands of the legislature and give it to a nonpartisan body. The voters have turned down every one.

How can that be, since legislators drawing their own districts seems such a conflict of interest? The answer may lie in the institutional conservatism of California voters. They do not understand this process, and not understanding it, are inclined to vote against reforming it.

Each of the four earlier ballot measures suffered from either an overly complex approach to district line drawing, or a poorly executed campaign to sell it to the voters. If as popular a politician as Arnold Schwarzenegger were to champion redistricting reform, it’s probable he would run a topflight campaign to sell it. But would it be a simple enough proposition for the voters to understand? In 2004, voters were offered a chance to adopt an open primary, a notion that seemed quite popular, but when they went into the polling booths, they found a complex measure that confused them, and so they voted no.

More pressing than even simplicity is the need for a bipartisan approach. That may be the most difficult to achieve. The current district lines assure that Democrats will control both houses of the legislature until the end of the decade, and will send 33 Democratic Members of Congress to Washington. New district lines would remove that certainty. They would not guarantee that Republicans would win more seats; they would simply make it possible, whereas a Republican majority is impossible right now.

The Democratic Party has been decimated by partisan gerrymandering throughout the country; the most recent example being Texas where a GOP plan took away six Democratic House seats in 2004. Why would Democrats give up their advantage in California at the bidding of its Republican governor when Republicans treat them so brutally elsewhere?

That’s a tough nut for this governor or anybody to crack. And yet if you believe gerrymandering is fundamentally bad and denies people choices in their legislative and congressional elections, why not start a reform movement and what better place than California. Maybe it would catch on around the country.

Simplicity and bipartisanship have to be the guiding principles if Schwarzenegger is to advance redistricting reform. We should know fairly soon whether this is a reality or a pipedream.

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