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Steven Hill's Written Testimony Before the California HAVA Commission

The State of Democracy in California
By Steven Hill
May 8, 2003
Imagine, for a moment, that you are a Doctor of Democracy. And you are going to diagnose the patient of democracy that is lying on the gurney before you -- that is, democracy in California. Like any good doctor, you need to read the vital signs of the patient. The vital signs of democracy are things like voter turnout, competitiveness of elections, how many seats were uncontested or won by landslides, and more.
So you take a reading of the first vital sign: voter turnout. The voter turnout for California's most recent governor's race was the lowest in state history.  Only about 30 percent of the state's 21.7 million eligible voters bothered to go to the polls, dropping California to 47th in state rankings for voter turnout.  Voter turnout for congressional and local races has been even lower. Here in San Francisco, our last city attorney race had voter turnout in a December runoff of about 13 percent of eligible voters. 
Moreover, voter turnout is lower among some groups than others.  Who doesn't vote?  Young people, poor people, and people of color disproportionately vote less than older, whiter and wealthier people. So when people and pundits like George Will say "Maybe they don't vote because they are satisfied," we know that turnout is lowest among those people who have LEAST reasons to be satisfied.
So you take a reading of the second vital sign: competitiveness of elections. In the 2002 California congressional elections, 50 out of 53 seats either were uncontested (two seats) or were won by huge landslide margins of 60 to 40 percent or higher (48 seats).  Two more seats were won by a non-competitive margin of 55 to 45 percent or higher, for a total of 52 out of 53 races - 98 percent -- that weren't even close. The victor was foreordained, and there was no choice for voters in these races other than to ratify the only candidate who stood a chance of winning.
At the state legislative level in 2002, out of 80 Assembly seats, 70 of these either were uncontested (eight seats) or were won by huge landslide margins of 60 to 40 percent or higher (62 seats).  Five more seats were won by a non-competitive ten point spread (55 to 45 percent or higher), for a total of 75 out of 80 races - 94 percent -- that weren't even close. State senate races saw the same kinds of results. Eighteen of the twenty seats up for election either were uncontested (six seats) or were won by huge landslide margins of 60 to 40 percent or higher (12 seats).  One more seat was won by a non-competitive ten point spread (55 to 45 percent or higher), for a total of 19 out of 20 races - 95 percent -- that weren't even close.
Why is this, one might ask?  Is it because all the incumbents, in a time of a declining economy, energy crises, school crises, and more, still were massively popular? Hardly. Here's a stronger likelihood.  According to Rep. Loretta Sanchez quoted in the Orange County Register, she and other Democratic congressional incumbents forked over $20,000 each to the political consultant who was overseeing the gerrymandering of legislative district lines to have drawn for them a "designer district" in which they could not lose. This is just "insider trading" by another name, no different than Enron or any of the other insider scandals. Not only that, but the consultant doing the line-drawing was the brother of one of the incumbents, and he split a Latino area in order to ensure his brother's re-election, prompting a lawsuit by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. The 2001 redistricting plan in California, which was dominated by the Democratic Party, raised "incumbent protection plans" to a crass new level.  This money paid was tantamount to the type of "protection money" one might pay to a local mafia don to protect your turf.
The net effect of redistricting in California was to do away with legislative elections for the next ten years.  The lines drawn were purposefully crafted to create safe, one-party districts where the outcome is foreordained.  Voters don't need to show up to the polls. In fact, we at the Center for Voting and Democracy are able to predict these winners well over a year in advance, just by looking at these kinds of demographics and a few other factors. There once was a time when voters went to the polls on the first Tuesday in November and picked their representatives. But that's changed. Now, the representatives pick us first. These kinds of shenanigans rob voters of our vote. Is it any wonder that voter turnout has hit record low levels?

Here's what we must do in California to revitalize our democracy:
1) California should adopt the Iowa model for redistricting. Iowa took the redistricting process out of the hands of the incumbents and their parties, and gave it to an independent nonpartisan commission. A commission should then use non-political criteria for line-drawing like< population equality, contiguity, and enhancing competition, while ensuring full protection of minority voting rights. This produces positive results because the ability of politicians to manipulate district lines is severely constrained.
2) California also should form a commission to study getting rid of single-seat districts entirely, for either the Assembly, the Senate, or both, and replacing these winner-take-all districts with a "full representation" (proportional representation) voting system that doesn't require redistricting. Full representation would produce more competition, more choice for voters, increase voter turnout, and allow California's burgeoning multi-racial population to enjoy diverse and fair representation without this smoke-filled-room business of gerrymandering district lines.  Illinois used such a system for 110 years to elect its lower house, and enjoyed these sorts of benefits. Other local governments and school boards in the U.S. already are elected using these full representation systems, and they are used extensively in Europe and elsewhere. The Democratic Party uses such a system to nominate its presidential candidate (the Republicans do too, but only in a third of states). This option might be particularly attractive considering recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings in Voting Rights cases.
3)California should adopt instant runoff voting to elect its statewide constitutional offices like governor, lieutenant governor, etc. This will institute a runoff system where voters can rank their candidates, 1, 2, 3, and free up voters to vote for the candidates they truly like. It will increase positive campaign debate, and provide different incentives for candidates that will clean up the worst of the negative campaigning that has plagued California politics in recent years. Candidates will win by building coalitions and attracting second rankings from the supporters of other candidates, rather than by tearing each other down. The redistricting process is the Achilles heel of our winner-take-all voting system.  It is time to consider reforms that will not only free California from the machinations involved in redistricting battles, but will also empower voters to choose their representatives, and not the other way around.
The patient of California democracy lies prone on the gurney, and the oscilloscope registering the vital signs is nearly a flat line.  As doctors of democracy, we can say with great assurance, that the patient is very sick. Not only is the patient very sick, but the remedy will need to be profound and systemic, and not simply palliative in nature. I urge you to be clear-headed in your diagnosis, and bold in your recommendations for a cure.  
Thank you.
Steven Hill

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The Center for Voting and Democracy
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(301) 270-4616        [email protected]