California, Ohio to vote on redistricting changes

By John Whitesides
Published November 2nd 2005 in Washington Post
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Voters in California and Ohio will decide next week whether to strip state politicians of the right to draw their own legislative district lines, the first public tests of a national effort to increase electoral competition and reduce the power of incumbency.

The two ballot initiatives, California's Proposition 77 and Ohio's Issue 4, would transfer the power to set congressional and legislative boundaries to independent panels, robbing state lawmakers of their traditional ability to twist and shape district lines for political advantage.

Similar initiatives are in the works in Florida and Massachusetts, and at least a dozen states have proposals in their state legislatures to create independent or bipartisan panels to handle the highly political process of redrawing districts every decade to reflect changes in population.

While district lines are supposed to be redrawn fairly based on census figures, the parties in charge often have used the process to "gerrymander" districts to their advantage. Increasingly sophisticated computer software has made a science of identifying and grouping voters.

The result, reform proponents say, is a bankrupt election system that safeguards incumbents, protects the party in power and cuts voters out of the democratic process.

"We're experiencing a slow-motion coup d'etat in California and in the rest of this country," said Bill Mundell, chairman of Californians for Fair Redistricting, which proposed the state's ballot initiative.

"The politicians, aided by significant advances in technology, have rewritten the districts in such a way that they have almost no possibility of losing," he said.

Opponents of both measures call them power grabs designed to reverse the results of past elections and both initiatives trail in public opinion polls after becoming swept up in local politics.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican in a Democratic-controlled state, has led the charge for the referendum there with help from Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona.


But analysts said Schwarzenegger's declining popularity has helped drag down the measure, one of four reform proposals he is pushing on the November 8 ballot.

In Republican-controlled Ohio, Democratic-leaning groups have led the fight and hope for help from an ethics scandal consuming Republican Gov. Bob Taft. The Ohio proposal is also part of a broader package of election reforms.

"How you feel about changing the process largely depends on how you came out in the last redistricting cycle and how you will come out in the next one," said Tim Storey, a redistricting analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver.

"If it passes in California and Ohio, then it's going to get a great deal of attention in other states," he said. "If they go down it will probably take the air out of things until the next redistricting cycle."

The national push for reform has been fueled by the declining number of competitive state and congressional races, a trend many analysts blame on redistricting. In California, none of the state's 153 congressional and state legislative races resulted in a change of parties in 2004.

Nationally, only five House incumbents lost to challengers in 2004 and more than 80 percent of House races across the country were won by margins of at least 20 percentage points, according to an analysis by FairVote-the Center for Voting and Democracy.

The movement also has been aided by recent events in Texas and Georgia, where the legislatures abandoned the tradition of redrawing lines only once every 10 years.

After Republicans won control of the Texas legislature in 2002, they redrew congressional lines with the help of then-House Republican Leader Tom DeLay and used the new lines to pick up five seats in Congress. Republicans in Georgia also redrew congressional lines after gaining control of the legislature.

"There is a great consensus that the lack of voter choice and competition is a problem," said Robert Richie, executive director of FairVote-the Center for Voting and Democracy. "It is not as easy agreeing on a solution."