Recent elections drive redistricting reform:
Proponents hopeful for more competitive elections

By Christian Danielsen
Published January 10th 2005 in California Aggie

California may become the latest state to strip its legislators of the power to draw their own districts.

In his State of the State address last week, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced he will back a plan to give the redistricting power to a panel of retired judges, calling the current process "rigged."

The move will undoubtedly cause a fight with the legislature, and the governor also faces historical opposition -- around 30 attempts since 1926 to change the redistricting process have failed.

Boundaries for state and national legislative districts in most states are drawn by state legislators, traditionally after every 10-year census to adjust for population changes. But in the last two decades, politicians in California and many other states have taken advantage of specially tailored computer programs to draw themselves friendly and oddly-shaped districts, making it hard to oust incumbent parties.

In a local example, state senator Mike Machado (D-Linden) benefited from the addition of left-leaning Davis to his district in the 2001 redistricting, helping him win a close race in the last election. Machado's fifth district now stretches from Tracy in the south to the upper boundaries of Yolo County.

Critics of this tactic, also known as gerrymandering, have given nicknames like "the bacon strip" and "the upside-down dragon" to some of the resulting districts. They blame gerrymandering for increasingly partisan candidates, uncompetitive elections, and a culture of entrenched incumbency that is unresponsive to constituents.


$20,000 for a safe seat

Gerrymandering in California has allowed legislators from both parties to keep their seats, even though voter opinion of the legislature is generally low.

Despite an October 2004 Field Poll giving the Legislature just a 33 percent approval rating, not one of California's 80 state legislature, 20 state senate or 53 congressional seats up for election last November changed party hands. More than 90 percent of those races were won by wide margins of victory for incumbents or their successors.

According to author Steven Hill of the Center for Voting and Democracy -- a San Francisco group that advocates for election reform -- the California Republican and Democratic parties have effectively eliminated competitive elections in the state by agreeing to make the districts "safe" for a certain number of Democrats and Republicans.

"These party leaders got together in 2001 and agreed to divvy up the state. Each legislator paid $20,000 to have a safe seat drawn for them," he said. "The guy who drew the map was a brother of one of the incumbents. You can't get any more corrupt than that."

U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Santa Ana) was quoted in a 2001 Orange County Register article saying the $20,000 she spent was "nothing" when compared with the cost of running a long campaign. She encouraged her Democratic colleagues to do the same.


Recall proponent collects signatures for new initiative

The most organized redistricting reform plan as of now is a proposition authored by Ted Costa, the proponent in last year's successful recall of Gov. Gray Davis and founder of the anti-tax group People's Advocate.

The Costa initiative would create a bi-partisan commission of three retired judges, who would consider plans for redistricting that anyone could submit. Plans would be judged based on criteria including geographical compactness and keeping cities and counties united.

The initiative specifically bars the panel from considering the effect of any new plan on an incumbent's election chances. Any approved plan would go to the voters for a final confirmation.

If Schwarzenegger decides to call a special election next fall, new districts could be in place by as soon as 2006, a move that will most likely benefit state Republicans, rousing the suspicion of Democratic legislators and party leaders.

The Texas legislature made headlines last year when the state's majority Republicans won a bitter battle to redraw the state's lines just two years after the 2001 redistricting, in defiance of the 10-year norm. Republicans there, headed by House of Representatives majority leader Tom Delay, openly said the move was a ploy to increase the party's power in Congress.

Costa, a Republican, vigorously denied that the plan was an attempt to grab more power for his party.

"We're trying to undo what Delay did in Texas," he said, noting that his initiative currently has the support of only four California Republican legislators. "We're trying to set up a level playing field so that kind of thing won't happen."

Costa said he hopes to work for similar reform in Texas and Florida if he is successful in California, saying his goal is to give all voters more power.

"Incumbent congressmen hate this idea because they're lazy," he said. "If this thing passes, they'll have to put their platform out in front of the voters every two years, just like the framers intended."

Whether Costa's plan will actually result in more competitive California races or not is unclear. Hill contended that California has become so politically polarized, with heavily Democratic costal and urban areas, and a similarly Republican interior, that continuing to use single-seat districts will not result in much change.

He argued instead for a multi-seat system, in which seats would be assigned in proportion to the vote, giving stranded conservatives in the Bay Area, or liberals in the Central Valley, a better shot at getting some representation.

"A multi-seat district system is the only way at this point to get more diversity and more moderates in the legislature," he said.