Redistricting Reform: Road Map to Nowhere?

By Paul Turner and Steven Hill
Published July 31st 2005 in Sacramento Bee
Redistricting reform in California has become a roller coaster ride. Ever since Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger launched his effort last January for a mid-decade redistricting by a panel of retired judges, the ups and downs have been dizzying as the governor and Legislature have tried to outmaneuver each other.

In the latest downward dip of the roller coaster, recently a state court threw Proposition 77, the governor's vehicle for redistricting reform, off the ballot due to a clerical mistake - the proponents sent the wrong version to the printer!

If you feel like you are being whipped around, you have company. To make matters worse, the fact is that the battle over redistricting may amount to a tempest in a teapot. When most nonpartisan experts in California are asked what impact a redistricting panel will have on state politics, the near-unanimous response is: not much.

In fact Proposition 77 does little to increase competitiveness, partisan fairness, government responsiveness or minority representation and participation. And it certainly will not "blow up the boxes of government," as Schwarzenegger has said he wants to do.

For starters, merely handing over the drawing of district lines to a panel of retired judges will not produce competitive districts. Recent studies of the impact of independent redistricting commissions in Arizona, Iowa and elsewhere show that these commissions have had minimal success in increasing competition in these states. In addition, in California, where the majority of the population comprises people of color, a pool of retired, primarily white male judges will not reflect the state's diversity.

But even more fundamentally, the problem is not who draws the legislative lines - it's where people live. Look at a map of California showing which areas voted for John Kerry and for President Bush. It looks the same as the map for Al Gore and Bush four years earlier. It will look much the same for the Republican and Democratic candidates in 2008.

Like in many other states, regional partisan leanings in California have become entrenched over the past 10 years, with the heavily populated coastal areas and cities dominated by Democrats and the more sparsely populated interior dominated by Republicans. It's a statewide version of the national Red vs. Blue America map.

Yet there are plenty of Democrats living in mostly Republican areas and vice versa, as well as independents and third-party supporters. It's just that their candidates almost never win. But it's not because of redistricting.

It's because when you elect one district seat at a time, only one side can win and everyone else loses. It's the "winner-take-all" electoral system, combined with these regional partisan demographics that strongly favor one party or the other, that has created so little competition.

In reality, shifting demographics have outstripped the abilities of the mapmakers to produce competitive elections. Proposition 77, while well-intentioned, was bound to fail.

The governor could still achieve real redistricting reform by joining with Democratic leaders in the Legislature to put forth an initiative designed to increase competition, provide greater representation and increase voter turnout. Elements of a better redistricting process would need to include:

1) A broadly representative redistricting panel consisting of not only retired judges but also citizens reflecting our state's diversity. This panel truly would be independent and produce a public interest redistricting process, preventing overly partisan gerrymanders or safe-seat incumbents.

2) The redistricting panel should be empowered to adopt a proportional representation voting system like that used in Peoria, Ill.; Cambridge, Mass., and elsewhere. The Peoria system uses multi-seat "super districts" as an alternative to our currently flawed single-seat, winner-take-all system.

Assembly super districts with five legislators per district would increase competitiveness, partisan fairness, minority representation and government responsiveness. These five-seat districts would more likely be bipartisan, even electing some urban Republicans and rural Democrats, occasionally even an independent or third party representative.

No matter what happens with Proposition 77's legal appeal, the call for better and more representative government will not end. Good government advocates, civil rights groups and others concerned with fair political representation are focused on producing a truly representative and responsive government for California. The Legislature and the governor should seriously consider such alternative redistricting methods and electoral systems, and include more groups in the dialogue for genuine reform. It's time to think outside the box about what kind of redistricting plan will elect a Legislature that better reflects the New California.

About the writers:

Paul Turner is Resident Fellow of the Greenlining Institute, and Steven Hill is an Irvine Senior Fellow with the New America Foundation and author of "Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner Take All Politics."