A Good Proposal that Won't do Much
If the goal is reforming elections, neutral panel isn't drastic enough

Published March 31st 2005 in San Jose Mercury News

On Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposal to take away the power to draw political districts from politicians and give it to some neutral panel, the widespread verdict is:

A.) Good idea.

B.) Not going to transform the Legislature.

Those conclusions emerge from a discussion on redistricting published on these pages March 27. The experts at the table agreed that allowing legislators to draw their own districts invites -- even begs -- them to protect themselves, their buddies and their party. They've accepted with pleasure.

An independent redistricting panel would protect minority rights, make districts compact, and not split cities or communities.

All to the good, as far as it goes, which brings us to point B: It won't go all that far. The bipartisan gerrymander after the 2000 U.S. census produced a nirvana of safe seats for the Republicans and Democrats. Not one of the Legislature's 120 seats changed parties in the past election. But even an impartial redistricting is unlikely to create competition in more than a fifth of the districts. There just aren't enough Republicans in the Bay Area or Democrats in the Central Valley to make more districts competitive.

If improving elections and the quality of representation is the goal, here are some more dramatic changes to consider:

Larger, multimember districts

The difference between five single-member districts and one five-member district, for example, would be significant.

Suppose Democrats and Republicans are distributed 60-40 in a region. A partisan gerrymander creates five safe Democratic seats. Even a neutral one probably creates only one district for a Republican.

One large district, on the other hand, would probably elect three Democrats and two Republicans, because candidates finishing fourth and fifth would need only 17 percent of the votes or less to win a seat.

Multimember districts greatly reduce the incentive to gerrymander because it's very difficult to exclude the minority party.

More legislators

This idea (see op-ed piece on Page 7B) doesn't eliminate redistricting disputes, but it should make districts more cohesive, because they would cover smaller areas. It might also create more seats for minorities.

Instant-runoff voting

Instead of voting for just one candidate, you rank the candidates in order of preference. Votes are counted several times. If your first choice loses in the first round of counting, your second choice then gets your vote in a second round of counting, and so on. Counting stops when a candidate gets a majority.

San Francisco uses this method of voting. Sen. Debra Bowen, D-Redondo Beach, has introduced a bill, SB 596, to allow any city in the state to choose its mayor and city council members this way.

So if we're thinking about how to make elections more competitive and meaningful, let's not think just about redrawing boxes, but, in the words of a well-known governor of a large Western state, let's also think about blowing them up.