Los Angeles Times
Seats' Cheat the Voters
November 10, 2002
There wasn't much mystery last week about who would be elected to
the state Legislature or California's delegation to the U.S. House
of Representatives. Party leaders in the Legislature stacked the
deck last year when they drew new district lines to reflect
population shifts on the basis of the 2000 census.
districts were carved into enclaves of heavy Democratic and
Republican voter registration to provide "safe" seats. Maps in hand
before a single vote was cast, you could have picked the winner in
virtually every district -- 80 in the Assembly, 20 in the state
Senate and 53 in the House. Only five of the 153 were true contests.
All but one of the 49 California incumbents in Congress won by a
landslide, with at least 60% of the vote. The other, Rep. Lois Capps
(D-Santa Barbara), won with 59%. Democrats remain strongly in
control of all three houses.
This cynical deal may serve the pols
well, but it's bad for California. It becomes virtually impossible
to hold lawmakers accountable at the next election. The Legislature
is increasingly polarized between Republican conservatives and
liberal Democrats. In spite of their majorities, Democrats need some
GOP votes to pass the budget and any other fiscal bill. That's why
this year's budget was deadlocked for two months beyond the
It's in the public interest to have clear lines of
opinion and vigorous debate. But the Legislature is so fractured
now, it's virtually impossible to reach a compromise on any major
issue, particularly on spending and taxes. The result of Tuesday's
election will be even more gridlock.
In most states, legislatures
have the task of redrawing legislative district boundaries and those
of the state delegation to the U.S. House, usually subject to
gubernatorial approval. A few legislatures have appointed
commissions that do the job. In Iowa this year, a nonpartisan bureau
set the boundary lines for districts.
California's districts were
drawn to last until after the 2010 census. The silver lining, if
any, is that good-government groups have time to develop an
alternative to legislators drawing their own districts. There is a
solution, but not one the legislators would accept. They cherish the
power to decide where district lines go, even to skew them so that a
potential challenger is put into a neighboring district. Past ballot
initiatives to give the job to an independent commission were
defeated in a flood of misleading attack ads paid for by legislative
Some activists talk of the Iowa method. That might be
difficult in California because the head of the comparable office,
though serving both Republicans and Democrats, is picked by the
leaders of the party in power. Although Iowa considers its procedure
nonpartisan, it's impossible to remove politics from the process.
That isn't the goal. The goal is to bring competition -- and a
chance for serious debate -- to legislative races.
should begin now. Because it would require a constitutional
amendment to take away the Legislature's redistricting power,
there's no reason why the measure couldn't order the drawing of new
districts for the next election. That would return real competition
and accountability to the political process in California.