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San Diego Union-Tribune

San Diego Union-Tribune
Unrigging elections:
Let voters, not politicians, decide who wins
June 1, 2004

Every two years, millions of California voters troop dutifully to the polls to choose their members of Congress and state legislators. What too many voters don't know, however, is that the winners of almost all of these elections have effectively been determined long before any votes are cast.

How could that be? Steven Hill and Rob Richie of the nonpartisan Center for Voting and Democracy explained in last Sunday's Insight section just how effectively this political scam works.

The California Legislature controls how congressional and legislative districts are drawn in this state following each decennial federal census. The use of highly sophisticated, carefully programmed computers grinding through mountains of demographic and polling data has made it possible to create lockstep Democratic or Republican districts with virtually mathematical precision.

As Hill and Richie noted, it's no exaggeration to say that incumbent legislators are choosing their voters before those voters can choose them.

The most recent California redistricting was an incumbent-protection pact crafted in Sacramento by both political parties. It all but guaranteed incumbent Democrats and incumbent Republicans, including those here in San Diego County, a lock on their re-election for the remainder of this decade. With Democrats holding the majority of California's congressional and legislative seats, the current incumbent protection gerrymander also means Republicans have next to no chance to regain a majority until sometime after 2012, at the earliest.

California's most recent congressional and legislative election results show just how effectively this corrupt practice disenfranchises voters and precludes political choice. Of California's 50 congressional races in 2002, for example, not one challenger of any incumbent received even 40 percent of the district's vote. The crushing odds against challengers are further compounded by the political parties, which typically don't bother funding their own challengers in districts lopsidedly rigged in the incumbents' favor.

Clearly, congressional and legislative elections in which nearly all incumbents are routinely re-elected by landslide margins and few if any challengers have a chance make a travesty of democracy.

California is hardly alone, of course. Most states have redistricting procedures that are no less prone to political manipulation by whichever party controls that state's legislature. Thus, re-election rates for incumbent members of the U.S. House of Representatives are currently about 98 percent. Only a relative handful of congressional races nationwide in any given election are considered genuinely competitive.

Can this systematic disenfranchisement of voters be fixed? It can, but not easily. California's ballot initiative and petition process offers redistricting
reform a way around the Legislature. But first, voters must understand just how effectively, and cynically, they have been manipulated and denied real choices in congressional and legislative elections


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