Purple fingers in California

By Steve Roberts
Published August 29th 2005 in The Oakland Tribune
This November, California voters have a chance to do what the purple fingers of Iraq did last January — strike a telling blow for democracy. Their challenge: pass Proposition 77, which would take the job of drawing legislative districts away from partisan politicians and give it to a panel of retired judges.

At a time when President Bush is proudly preaching the virtues of democratic rule around the globe, representative government here at home is in miserable shape. So the citizens of Burbank and Bakersfield have to muster the same courage the world saw from the people of Basra and Baghdad.

In the last election, 153 state and federal legislative seats were at stake in California. The number that changed party hands: zero. Over the last two cycles, incumbent House members ran 101 times. All of them won. Easily.

What kind of democracy is that? asked Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the prime mover behind Prop. 77. The answer is painfully obvious: A rigged democracy. No real democracy at all.

Changing the system will be very tough. The people who do the rigging are the entrenched leaders of both parties, and they will fight ferociously to protect their cozy conspiracy.

Normally, we applaud lawmakers who work together across partisan lines. But you know somethings fishy when two of the most politically astute congressmen in the state — Republican John Doolittle and Democrat Howard Berman — file a joint appeal to the Federal Election Commission.

 That request, recently approved by the panel, would allow the two lawmakers and their powerful friends to raise unlimited amounts of cash to trash Prop. 77. Thats why the rest of the country has to give moral and financial support to the states governor.

California has long been a trendsetter, from the anti-war protests of the60s to the anti-tax revolts of the70s. The whole idea of ballot initiatives and recall elections started here almost a century ago under Gov. Hiram Johnson, the current governors role model. Now this state has the opportunity, once again, to reform and revitalize the nations political culture.

Manipulating congressional districts has long been part of the American tradition. The phrase gerrymander dates all the way back to 1812, after all. But highly precise computers, in the hands of highly partisan cartographers, have now turned district mapmaking into a corruptly exact science, in the words of The Washington Post.

Across the country, notes the Center for Voting and Democracy, the last two elections were the least competitive in American history by most standards. In 2004, the average margin of victory in the nations 435 House districts was 40 percent. In four out of five races, the winners cushion was at least 20 percent. The elections were remotely competitive in only 23 districts, or about 5 percent of the country. Only seven incumbents lost.

The damage goes far beyond fair play. The essence of democracy is accountability. Elected leaders must operate with the knowledge that voters can ultimately decide their fate. But if the system is stacked, if virtually every district is safe, that accountability is lost. Lawmakers have no incentive to listen to minorities or dissenters or supporters of the other party.

This means that candidates are more worried about primaries than about general elections, so they play to their activist base, not the centrists who make up most of the electorate. Each party in the House is driven to the extremes — Democrats to the left, Republicans to the right.

 Rep. Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat, told us that today, voters dont choose their politicians, politicians choose their voters. And he described the impact on todays House: Without the pressure of competitive races, there is less incentive to cooperate. Instead, both parties are increasingly ideological. Meanwhile, the independent-minded candidates and moderate legislators who represent the vast middle of the American political spectrum become extinct.

Fortunately, some Americans are raising their voices in protest. More than 500,000 voters in Ohio have signed petitions, backing a constitutional amendment that would assign redistricting to an independent commission, and a vote this fall seems likely. Reformers in Florida have raised over $400,000 to put a similar measure on the ballot there next year.

In Congress, Rep. John Tanner, a Tennessee Democrat, has about 50 co-sponsors for a bill that would mandate similar commissions in every state. Politics has hijacked democracy, he told the newspaper Roll Call. Tanners right.

Now the voters of California can overpower the hijackers and take back the system. Let their purple fingers wave.