Redistricting reform draws a map of great disappointment

By Mark Paul
Published January 28th 2007 in San Francisco Chronicle

Political reform is what we do in California to break our hearts. We enact the initiative to take government away from the special interests, only to watch the initiative process turn into a special interest feast. We pass term limits and end up with a Legislature of strangers who stick around only long enough to squabble and pad their resumes for the next job.

So it's only right that the next item on the reform agenda -- taking the drawing of congressional and legislative districts away from the Legislature and governor -- has the heartbreak already built in. As a cure for all the things said to ail our politics -- polarized parties, lack of political competition, unresponsive representation -- redistricting reform is like prescribing aspirin for gangrene.

"We must bring competition back into the political process and guarantee that our elected leaders represent the full diversity of California and the will of the people," Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said earlier this month in unveiling his latest redistricting reform proposal, the successor to Proposition 77, heartily rejected by voters in 2005.

Oh, such a lovely wish. If only redistricting reform could make it come true.

There's little dispute about what's happened to our politics. As the two parties have realigned themselves along ideological lines and voters have increasingly clumped themselves into enclaves of the like-minded, politics has grown more polarized, incumbent lawmakers are rarely defeated and most elections for House or legislative seats are walkovers.

But contrary to the wisdom of chat shows and op-ed pages, redistricting has had little or nothing to do with these changes. In fact, some political science studies conclude that redistricting has slightly reduced incumbent re-election rates. That shouldn't come as a surprise. Sometimes districts get drawn to ratify the current political balance, as the California Legislature did in its bipartisan gerrymander in 2001. And sometimes, as in Rep. Phillip Burton's famous 1982 congressional plan, the lines get drawn to help one party capture more seats, which sacrifices safe districts and increases competition.

If it's more competition and turnover we want, the mini-reform offered by the governor isn't likely to provide much of either. Schwarzenegger's plan doesn't call for the redistricting commission it creates to increase competition. It tells the commission only to draw districts that are contiguous and compact, minimize the splitting of cities and counties, and keep together "social, cultural, ethnic, geographic or economic" -- but not political -- groups. Forget for a minute that those criteria are often mutually exclusive. The key point is that, under Schwarzenegger's plan, any gain in competition would be purely an accident.

How big would the gain be? Here's where the heartbreak comes in. "There is no evidence that redistricting by nonpartisan redistricting commissions or courts resulted in more competitive districts than redistricting by partisan state legislatures," Emory University political scientists Alan Abramowitz, Brad Alexander and Matthew Gunning of Emory University recently wrote. Increasingly, Democrats and Republicans live apart, with the Democrats dominating on the coast and in inner cities, the Republicans in the suburbs, Central Valley and Sierra foothills. That guarantees that most district-based elections will be walkovers, no matter who draws the maps. Only the most brazen gerrymander, performed in the name of competition, could change more than a handful of seats.

Californians learned the limits of nonpartisan redistricting in the 1990s. We went through five California election cycles using districts drawn in 1991 by nonpartisan court masters. Even without gerrymandering, only 5 percent of House and Assembly elections ended in a party turnover. That's a bit more competition than under the current districts. But it wasn't enough to make Californians feel good about government or the quality of representation they received. Why should we expect a different result in the future?

To restore citizen faith and renew democracy, California needs stronger medicine.

The treatment begins in recognizing that, in this most dynamic and complicated society on the planet, we have outgrown some of our inherited institutions: our tiny Legislature; our single-member districts elected by plurality vote; our habit of privately financing campaigns. Whatever their virtues in the past, these traditions operate today to alienate citizens from their government.

With only 120 members, our Legislature is too small to represent nearly 38 million people. Each member of the California Assembly speaks for about 470,000 people -- three times as many as in the state with the next largest districts, and 10 times more than the average for lower houses in the other states. (State senators represent nearly 1 million people.) These huge districts distance lawmakers from the represented. They require candidates to raise cash in sums so large that only special interests and the wealthy can supply them. Combine these features with our system of plurality primary and general elections, which often permits a minority of voters in a district to elect a candidate, and you have a government built for disillusionment.

California voters have repeatedly rejected redistricting reform. But in recent years they've shown themselves ready for more far-reaching efforts aimed at democratic renewal. To assure that elections more closely reflect the preferences of voters, they've approved or endorsed various forms of ranked voting in San Francisco, Oakland, Davis, San Leandro and Santa Clara County, and there are similar movements under way in Los Angeles, Santa Monica and San Diego. A recent poll conducted for the New America Foundation found strong support for creating a citizens electoral reform commission like the Citizens Assembly in British Columbia, which won majority voter support for a proportional system of ranked voting. But while citizens push ahead, the reform debate in the state Capitol is stuck in a time warp, rehashing the same redistricting arguments that grew stale 20 years ago.

Any reform effort can end badly. But if we are going to take on political reform, better to risk breaking our hearts over something big enough to match California's real problems, not a mini-reform sure to disappoint.

Mark Paul was formerly deputy editorial page editor of the Sacramento Bee and deputy treasurer of California. Contact us at [email protected].