Citizens Must Drive Electoral Reform

By Heather Gerken
Published November 15th 2005 in Roll Call
In his column on the failure of redistricting initiatives to pass in Ohio and California last week, Stuart Rothenberg gets the diagnosis right ("On Redistricting, Voters Have Spoken Up for the Status Quo," Nov. 10). But, like most U.S. reformers, he overlooks a promising cure for the problem he identifies - one that could help reformers overcome the hurdles they face in getting reform through the initiative process.

As Rothenberg notes, reformers looking to take away the power of self-interested legislators to draw their own districts find themselves in a quandary. While voters are plainly hungry for reform, it is hard to get such a change passed even through a ballot initiative. He is correct to note that voters rely on cues when deciding how to vote on any proposal, and those cues are often provided by the political parties. Not only can politicians mobilize political support, but they can also affect voters' decisions merely by taking a public stand. Given that the party in power will always oppose districting reform, it is hard for reform to gain political traction, no matter how attractive the idea. After all, there are always two ready arguments against the type of nonpartisan commissions that reformers keep proposing: that the proposals are motivated by partisanship, and that they are undemocratic. These were precisely the allegations made against these initiatives. So, Democrats in California voted against Proposition 77 because it was backed by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Republicans in Ohio voted against Issue 4 because it was backed by a group made up of Democrats and unions.

What Rothenberg has missed, however, is a lesson provided by our neighbors to the north. In one of the most intriguing democratic experiments of the last century, reformers in British Columbia succeeded in forcing legislators to give citizens a chance to set the rules of electoral politics.

The provincial government created a Citizens' Assembly that deliberated for a year and proposed a revision to the province's electoral system that garnered an astonishing 58 percent of the vote despite having no resources for a public education campaign. While that number fell short of the supermajority requirement the government imposed to pass the change, the governing party has nonetheless been pressured to continue the work of the Assembly by pressing forward with reform. Now, reformers in Ontario and the Netherlands have persuaded their own governments to follow this example.

Two questions must be asked about the experience in British Columbia. Why did the Citizens' Assembly proposal do so well despite the complete absence of a public education campaign? And why does it continue to dog the government even though it technically failed?

The answer to the first question is simple. Voters were using a cue when they went to the polling booth: The word "citizen" was on the ballot. Like voters in the United States, British Columbians may not trust politicians or claims to nonpartisanship, but they trust each other.

The answer to the second question is related. A proposal blessed by a citizens' assembly is hard to attack as either partisan or undemocratic. In fact, no politician worth his salt wants to come out against the decision of a citizens' assembly. Here, then, is a potential cure for the problem Rothenberg identifies.

Why haven't reformers in the United States - with the apparent exception of a small, newly formed group in California - followed British Columbia's lead and proposed either a citizen-run redistricting commission or a citizens' assembly that could design an alternative system for drawing districts?

When I have mentioned the British Columbia experience to reform advocates, they have often suggested that a citizen-run commission could not deal with the complex issues at stake in redistricting - a remarkably elitist view for groups supposedly interested in democracy.

The British Columbia experience shows that these reformers are wrong. Citizens there did an excellent job choosing an electoral system, which is something harder to do than draw district lines. They worked hard, did their homework, and made sensible choices.

In the wake of the defeats in California and Ohio, it's time for American reformers to harness the most powerful impulse for change: the trust that we have in one another.

Heather Gerken is a professor at Harvard Law School who specializes in election law.