Real redistricting reform is proportional representation

By Rob Dickinson
Published March 21st 2006 in San Francisco Examiner
Since November 8, there has been considerable discussion about the failure of ballot measures in California and Ohio to implement independent redistricting. Unfortunately, most of these discussions miss the point about what is wrong with our current electoral system and how to reform it. And none of them arrive at the proper conclusion, which is that it is time for America to join most other Western democracies in adopting a proportional voting system.

People who supported these measures consider their ballot box failure as a significant missed opportunity to correct the almost complete lack of competition inherent in our current system. People who opposed these measures point to the significant flaws in the design of the independent redistricting alternatives or to partisan motives of the proponents.

In either case, both the proponents and the opponents of independent redistricting make the faulty assumption that the whole issue is about who should draw the lines for single-member legislative districts (i.e. where only one legislator is elected from each district) and what those district boundaries should look like. Once this assumption is made, we have already eliminated the only real opportunity to achieve true competition and fair representation, which is to move from our current winner-take-all electoral system to a more fair and representative proportional system.

It is taken almost as a given that competition is the ultimate goal when determining legislative districts. Why is that? Certainly we envision that competitive districts will lead to a richer debate around the issues. We also assume that candidates will have a greater incentive to represent the wishes of the majority of the electorate if they need to compete to win their votes. But perhaps more fundamental than these obvious reasons is a belief that competitive districts are more fair than districts in which the outcome is all but pre-determined, generally with the incumbent winning. Americans value "fairness" and many people see it as inherently unfair that a large percentage of the voters in each district have no chance to elect a representative who shares their views. Thus the desire to make legislative districts competitive is both a desire to make politicians more accountable and to give all voters a greater say in who represents them.

The paradox is that achieving competition in legislative districts actually makes them less fair rather than more fair. Consider an almost perfectly competitive district, where 50 percent of the voters support one major party and 50 percent support the other major party. Obviously, elections in this hypothetical district are very competitive, but how fair is the result? In our winner-take-all system using single-member districts, half of the voters in that district will be represented, i.e. have a representative who shares their views, whereas the other half of the population is effectively marginalized.

The first thing most newly elected officials say when they win is that they will "represent all of the voters and not just those who voted for them". Sadly, this is not often the reality in our highly polarized political culture. Elected officials may want to represent all of their citizens, but voters are deeply split on many of the most important issues of our time, and so the political philosophies and policy agendas of the major parties are often diametrically opposed. Thus voters who live in districts that elect winners from the opposing party are effectively unrepresented. As a result, competitive districts provide good representation to roughly half of the voters in those districts and little or no representation to the other half of the voters. By contrast, in a district heavily favoring one party, a larger majority of the voters are represented by someone they support, but there is no competition.

An example of how a substantial percentage of the voter base is marginalized is the liberal enclave of Northern California. Despite having overwhelming Democratic majorities in San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Alameda, Marin, and Monterey Counties, these areas still have significant percentages of Republican voters, typically between 20 and 35% of the voters declaring a party affiliation. These Republican voters are never able to elect a member of their party. The same is true for Democratic voters in conservative strongholds. It is fantasy to think that independent redistricting will solve this problem, as the various regions of California are now dominated by one or the other major party

Competition and representation are mutually exclusive in a winner-take-all single-member district system. You can have one but not the other. Given that, it does not matter who draws the district lines in a single-member district system or how they are drawn since we already know that the solution will not produce both competition and fair representation. Evidently independent redistricting is not the answer.

So what is the answer? We need to have districts that elect more than one person to the Legislature and we need to elect these multiple representatives using a proportional voting system. A moderately proportional voting system for California’s Assembly could be based on having sixteen 5-member districts instead of our existing eighty single-member districts. Under a proportional voting system, if 60% of the voters in such a district vote Democrat and 40% vote Republican, 3 of the 5 seats would go to Democrats and 2 of the seats would go to Republicans. Each party would achieve representation in proportion to the support they have among the public.

Such a system would also be inherently competitive, as members of both parties would need to get out to vote in order to receive as much representation as they can. And even in an area dominated by one party, the candidates from that party would still be competing among themselves to win the seats that the voters of that party are entitled to.

It's time to move beyond re-hashing the same tired debate about who draws the district lines and think about what it really means to be represented and how to provide fair representation to all citizens. And that requires that we consider proportional voting in multi-member legislative districts.

Rob Dickinson, Executive Vice President
Californians for Electoral Reform