Battle royal brewing over redistricting

By Steven Hill
Published April 19th 2005 in The San Francisco Examiner
In California, a political volcano is smoldering that is unusual for this time of the decade. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, has launched an effort for a mid-decade redistricting by a panel of judges, taking the line-drawing of legislative districts out of the hands of the Democratic-dominated legislature.

Democrats are calling the governor's actions a power grab, like GOP firebrand Tom DeLay's re-redistricting scheme in Texas. Schwarzenegger has responded by saying he will call a special election for November 2005 to let the voters decide. The volcano is building up steam and looks set to blow.

Yet at the end of the day it all may amount to a tempest in a teapot. When most nonpartisan experts in California are asked what impact a redistricting commission will have on state politics, the near-unanimous response is: not much. Gradual changes in the California political map have weakened the ability of the line-drawers to affect outcomes.

Over the last 10 to 15 years there has been a dramatic shift in regional partisan demographics, not only in California but in other states as well. Red/Republican versus blue/Democrat demographics have become balkanized along regional lines, with many states having their own red versus blue patterns within their state.

In California, liberal voters and Democrats dominate the coastal areas and cities, while conservative voters and Republicans dominate the interior areas. The only way to make California's districts more competitive is to use the Democratic cities as the hubs of a wheel, and draw the districts as spokes radiating outward into the more Republican interior. Districts would have to start in San Francisco and extend across the bay into Contra Costa County, or start in downtown Los Angeles and extend eastward into Riverside County. Or districts would have to be narrow east-west bands up and down the state, creating what has been called the "coral snakeamander" plan.

But that plan would look ridiculous, and also would undermine the ability of "communities of interest" such as racial minorities to elect their representative, leading to legal challenges.

Most analysts have not yet caught up with this paradigm shift. They are still thinking about politics the way we used to, without acknowledging the dramatic shift in the regional partisan demographics that has occurred in California. But these are the stark dilemmas that face redistricting practitioners and that will thwart attempts by a California redistricting commission to create more competitive races.

Other states already use redistricting commissions, and the results have not been promising because of the same sort of urban/rural splits. In Iowa, long considered the "poster child" for the effectiveness of redistricting commissions, all Congressional incumbents easily won reelection in 2004, and in the state legislature most seats were won by huge landslide margins with only four seats out of 100 considered tight. Arizona, Washington and other states using redistricting commissions have had similarly disappointing results.

That is not to say that there are not still some states where partisan gerrymanders have not unfairly tilted the playing field. The Republican gerrymander in Florida, for instance, has given the GOP 18 out of 25 congressional seats even though the statewide votes of Democrats and Republicans are about even. But in states like California, Washington and others, partisan regional demographics are trumping the hands of the line-drawers.

In short, California and other states find themselves in a situation where the problem is not who draws the legislative lines, it's where people live. Our current politics are about as good as they are going to get as long as we continue to use an antiquated single-seat district, winner-take-all electoral system that is so ill-suited for the new California and its wide range of attitudes, demographics and geographic regions. New approaches are needed.

To promote more competitive races and give bipartisan representation to all parts of the state, California should adopt a non-winner-take-all voting system like that used in Peoria, Illinois for municipal elections. Instead of electing 80 state representatives from 80 districts, voters in 16 districts would elect five representatives each. Any candidate who won at least a sixth of the vote would earn a seat. These five-seat districts would see more bipartisan competition, even electing some urban Republicans and rural Democrats. Occasionally an independent candidate or a third-party candidate might win a seat, really opening up California democracy and giving voters more choice. More competition would foster greater accountability.

If Governor Schwarzenegger and other reformers are serious about transforming California politics, that's the plan they should promote. The political map has shifted, and reformers need to adjust accordingly.