by Steven Hill and Rob Richie
February 2, 1998
U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein's withdrawal from the California governor's race has unleashed a speculative buzz around the state and nation, as many pundits and pollsters try to predict the impact this will have on California's future. Among other things, the next governor will play a crucial role in the redrawing of congressional districts following the 2000 census.
Some experts predict that as many as a dozen congressional seats are up for grabs.
One obvious implication: the representation of many Californians in 2004 will be determined by Californians voting in 1998. There's something undeniably wrong with this picture, and it bears further examination.
The redistricting process is the ultimate insider's game. Every 10 years, the Democrats and Republicans sit in a back room and carve up the political landscape into a hodgepodge of districts gerrymandered for partisan and incumbent protection. In 1981, the Democrats instituted Phil Burton's infamous California plan that gave them an edge throughout the 1980's. Today, using even more sophisticated computer software and polling data, it doesn't take a Phil Burton to draw the perfect gerrymander. Quite literally, politicians are capable of choosing the voters instead of the other way around.
So whoever is elected California's governor next November will sit like a king overseeing this thoroughly undemocratic process. That's why so much is at stake.
Who gets ripped off by this process? Why, the voters, of course. As a result of the redistricting process, most voters are locked down into noncompetitive one-party fiefdoms where their only real choice at election time is to ratify the incumbent or heir apparent of the party controlling that district. A recent study called Monopoly Politics by our nonpartisan Center for Voting and Democracy shows that 77 percent of 1996 congressional races in California were won by a comfortable margin of 10 points or higher, and 73 percent of races were won by landslides of 20 points or higher - nearly all in districts tilted heavily toward one party or the other, courtesy of the redistricting process. This means that, on election day, three in four voters already knew who would win before they even stepped into the voters booth.
The redistricting process --or shall we say the "incumbent-protection" process -- even more than campaign finance, is responsible for creating uninspiring noncompetitive elections where voters have little choice. If you are a Democrat in a solidly Republican district, or a Republican in a solidly Democratic district, or a supporter of a minor party, you don't have a chance of electing your candidate of choice, no matter how much money your candidate spends. Voters of all political stripes are negatively impacted by the gerrymandering that is inherent to the redistricting process.
So what can be done? The next round of redistricting happens in 2001, and it is essential that the public be involved. At the very least, the redistricting process should be an open one, with full media coverage and a blue ribbon commission that monitors the process and seeks citizen input.
We recommend, however, that California copy the Iowa model. Iowa took the redistricting process out of the hands of the incumbents and their parties, and gave it to an independent nonpartisan commission that uses non-political criteria like population equality and contiguity for line-drawing. This produces positive results because the ability of politicians to manipulate district lines is severely limited. San Diego follows a similar process for drawing their city council district lines.
If the commission were feeling particularly bold, it might consider getting rid of single-seat districts entirely, and using 3-seat semi-proportional or proportional voting systems that don't require redistricting. Illinois used such a system from 1870 to 1980 to elect its lower house, and nearly every district, including Chicago and the rural areas, had two-party representation. More competition means more choices for voters. This option might be particularly attractive considering recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings in Voting Rights cases.
The redistricting process is the Achilles heel of our winner-take-all system. As we mull the meaning of the upcoming governor's race in California, let us consider reforms that will not only free that office from the machinations involved in redistricting battles, but will also empower voters to choose their representatives, and not the other way around.
Rob Richie is executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy, a nonprofit organization based in Washington DC that educates about voting systems. Steven Hill is the Center's west coast director.