San Francisco —
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger visited
this week in part to solicit support for his proposal to change the
draws its legislative districts. His efforts are commendable, and
his plan won an endorsement from Common Cause, the government
watchdog group. But his plan is unlikely to achieve his goals
because it does not account for the realities of
's demographic landscape.
Schwarzenegger and others are proposing that redistricting be taken
out of the hands of the incumbents and given to an independent body,
like a panel of impartial retired judges. Yet several states already
use independent commissions, and the results are not encouraging.
, where an independent panel delineates districts, all eight
Congressional incumbents won re-election last year with an average
margin of victory of 34 percent. In the State Senate, none of the 30
seats were competitive; in fact, more than half of the seats were
uncontested by one of the two major parties (even though
has public financing of elections, which should encourage more
candidates). Other states that use independent or bipartisan
redistricting commissions of one kind or another, like Iowa, New
Jersey and Washington, also had mostly noncompetitive Congressional
elections in 2004.
problem is not who draws the legislative lines - it's where people
live. Take a look at a map of
that shows which areas voted for John Kerry and which voted for
President Bush. It looks the same as the map for Al Gore and Mr.
Bush four years earlier. It will look much the same for the
Republican and Democratic candidates in 2008.
they have in many states, regional partisan leanings in
have become entrenched over the past 20 years, with the heavily
populated coastal areas and cities dominated by Democrats and the
more sparsely populated interior dominated by Republicans. It's a
statewide version of the national political map.
that there aren't plenty of Democrats living in mostly Republican
areas (and vice versa) - as well as independents and third-party
supporters all over. It's just that they are "orphaned
voters" whose candidates almost never win. But it's not because
of redistricting. It's because regional partisan demographics are
exaggerated by the method by which
elects its representatives - the single-seat-district,
winner-take-all electoral system.
only way to make districts more competitive would be to use the
Democratic urban areas as the hubs of a wheel, and draw the
districts as spokes radiating outward from the urban hub into the
more Republican interior. In
, there would need to be narrow districts beginning in downtown
and extending east to
. In the Bay Area, the districts would begin in
and extend across the bay into
. Some of them might be narrow corridors extending from the
new districts would be competitive, but they would also look
ridiculous. Moreover, they would probably run afoul of the federal
Voting Rights Act, which is intended to ensure minority
representation. There is a trade-off between creating more
competitive districts and giving minority communities a fair chance
of electing representatives.
Governor Schwarzenegger's plan, while well intentioned, is bound to
fail. The old ways of thinking about redistricting and its impact no
longer apply in
- nor in many other states. Shifting demographics have outstripped
the abilities of the mapmakers to encourage competitiveness.
nonpartisan redistricting commission may make a few more legislative
seats more competitive. And it certainly would have the salutary
effect of changing the public perception that incumbents have a hand
in rigging their own district lines. But such tinkering is not
likely to change much else. It will not "blow up the
boxes" of state government, as Mr. Schwarzenegger has said he
wishes to do.
may well be that
's electoral system, like the rest of
's, has reached its endgame. Our current politics are as good as
they are going to be as long as we continue to use an antiquated
method that is so ill suited for the new California and its wide
range of attitudes, demographics and geographic regions.
can't change where people choose to live, but we can begin using
some type of proportional representation system. For example,
could use a system like that used in
for municipal elections. Instead of electing 40 state senators from
40 districts, voters in 10 districts could elect four senators each.
Any candidate who won at least a quarter of the vote would earn a
seat. These districts would be far more likely to be bipartisan,
even electing some urban Republicans and rural Democrats.
the path that the governor should pursue, if he is serious about
reforming his state's politics. And it's a path the rest of the
nation's governors should examine as well.
Steven Hill, a fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author
of "Fixing Elections: The Failure of