A most undemocratic reform

By John Diaz
Published September 9th 2007 in San Francisco Chronicle
If Republicans want to grab an easy bushel of California's 55 electoral votes, they ought to at least try to keep a straight face while doing it.

There are plenty of absurdities about the ploy to reshape the 2008 presidential election by giving a single electoral vote to the winning candidate in each of California's 53 congressional districts - with a 2-elector bonus to the statewide winner.

Republicans have not carried the nation's most populous state since 1988 and this new scheme - if approved by voters in June 2008 - would guarantee them a baseline of electoral votes that would be equivalent to a winner-take-all victory in Illinois, Pennsylvania or Ohio.

Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger disassociated himself from this attempted power grab by a few of his party brethren. He suggested it "almost feels like a loser's mentality."

Actually, it reflects a win-at-any-cost mentality, which is why Democrats are so nervous as petitions for the initiative hit the streets this weekend. The proposed ballot measure is not principled "reform" - it's a gem of political calculation.

After all, it's almost laughable to suggest that aligning a presidential race with California's heavily gerrymandered congressional districts represents an exercise in democracy or fair play.

California's congressional district boundaries were not drawn to promote competition or to produce legislators that might reflect the diversity of the state. They were conceived to preserve the status quo for the Democrats and Republicans who have settled comfortably into the U.S. House of Representatives.

"Ours is an incumbent protection act, I'll admit that out of hand," Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata said last week.

The boundaries, drawn by state legislators, have been brutally efficient at assuring that "Democratic seats" stay Democratic and "Republican seats" stay Republican - virtually immunized against unpopular wars, economic downturns and ethics troubles. Despite a strong national Democratic wave in 2006, only one of California's 53 House seats changed party hands - Republican incumbent Richard Pombo, racked by scandal and targeted by environmental groups, lost to Democrat Jerry McNerney. None of the 53 seats changed party hands in 2004.

The presidential preference of most California districts is equally predictable. In 2004, statewide winner John Kerry carried 31 of California's congressional districts; George W. Bush prevailed in 22.

So clear is the partisan bent of these districts - by design, with the assistance of sophisticated computer modeling - that it's hard to imagine that more than a few would truly be up for grabs in any presidential election.

In reality, if California were to apportion electors by congressional district, its current prize of 55 electoral votes suddenly would be diminished to a competition for perhaps five electors (equivalent to Idaho or West Virginia) at the most.

Regrettably for the concept of democracy, the Democrats who control California's Senate and Assembly show no desire to include congressional boundaries in still-sputtering efforts turn the drawing of state legislative districts to an independent commission. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has made it abundantly clear that any change in the process of drawing House seats should be done at the federal level. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose, has proposed legislation to do just that, but its chances are considered highly remote.

The fact is, politicians like to control the redistricting process and effectively determine elections before a single vote is cast. While the California tradition is to protect incumbents of both parties, other states have seen partisan manipulations of the process. In 2003, then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay engineered a Texas redistricting scheme that helped Republicans gain six House seats in the 2004 election.

Even though California Democrats might actually gain seats under a redistricting process that would be insulated from political horse trading, they are openly reluctant to cede their power to draw boundaries when their counterparts in Texas and other states are exercising theirs for brazen political advantage.

"If Nancy Pelosi is going to lose the speakership, I don't want it to happen on my watch," said Perata, the Senate president pro tem. "I can't be any more honest than that."

I agree that the Electoral College system - with its winner-take-all formula in 48 of the 50 states - is less than democratic. Just ask Al Gore, who won the popular vote but lost the election in 2000. The solution, however, is to elect presidents by direct popular vote, not to let partisans started tinkering with modifications that benefit their candidates in particular states.

John Diaz is The Chronicle's editorial page editor.