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The $20,000 Incumbent Bargain

By Steven Hill

What if you could pay $20,000, and for that modest sum end up with lifetime employment at a salary of $158,000 annually, with the best health and retirement benefits, frequent travel to Washington DC, and staff and paid expenses, all on the public's dime? What a deal, eh?

As the most recent election results show, that's the situation for California's congressional delegation as a result of gerrymandering their own legislative district lines. The 2001 redistricting in California was a travesty. The Democratic incumbents paid $20,000 apiece to the political consultant drawing the district lines who happened to be the brother of one incumbent to draw each of them a "safe seat" where they would easily win re-election. It was like paying protection money to a Mafia don for your turf. Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez, knowing a bargain, told a reporter, "Twenty thousand is nothing to keep your seat. I usually spend $2 million every election."

Then, to the dismay of national Democrats, the California Democrats controlling the line-drawing gave the GOP incumbents safe seats too, in return for their acceptance. The fix was in. It was a bipartisan collusion against California democracy and the voters. And it worked. In the recent November election, 51 out of 53 congressional seats were won by huge landslide margins.

The Democrats also drew safe seats for the state senate and assembly districts. Those resulted in 90 percent of state legislative races won by landslide margins in the recent election. The incumbents literally did away with most legislative elections in California. Forget about "money buying elections," most elections are decided during the line-rigging process, when the politicians use sophisticated computers to handpick their voters before voters pick them.

But that's not all. This backroom redistricting has produced a government where hard-core partisans dominate the legislature and fewer moderates get elected. It has exacerbated a Red vs. Blue California marked by regional balkanization, where the high population coastal Blue areas are dominated by Democrats and the low population Red interior by Republicans. Not that there aren't Democrats in red areas and Republicans in blue areas as well as independents and third party supporters it's just that they rarely win representation. Purple California gets smothered in the zero-sum game of winner-take-all elections.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Republican recall activist Ted Costa, and others have proposed taking redistricting out of the hands of a partisan legislature. This makes sense, but the devil is in the details. For instance, the Costa initiative would immediately reopen redistricting instead of waiting until the end of this decade, as is customary. And it would create an unwieldy process that requires any redistricting plan to receive voter approval. This is a formula for bitter partisan battles that will disrupt the remainder of the decade.

More important, even the best-intentioned "public interest redistricting" will have limited impact in addressing redistricting's many ills. Because at the end of the day the problem is not just who draws the legislative lines; it's our antiquated, single-seat district, winner-take-all system.

The Democratic vote has become so highly urbanized and concentrated that even the fairest redistricting will make only a handful of districts more competitive. And there is a tradeoff between making more seats competitive and allowing "communities of interest" such as minorities to elect their chosen representative. Winner-take-all elections pit everyone against each other Democrats, Republicans, independents, different racial groups all trying to win a limited commodity-representation.

So what can be done? Political scientist Arend Lijphart from University of California-San Diego says "the best solution is to evolve from winner-take-all elections toward some moderate form of proportional representation." For example, in the state senate, instead of electing 40 individual district seats, we could elect 10 districts with four seats each, elected by a proportional method where a party's candidates wins legislative seats in proportion to their percentage of the popular vote. Twenty percent of the vote wins one seat, 60% wins three seats, and so on.

According to Professor Lijphart, that would make all parts of the state competitive for both major parties, occasionally even a third party. Rural areas would elect some Democrats and coastal areas some Republicans. And moderates and independents running grassroots campaigns outside party machines would get elected. Purple California would have a voice. Illinois' state legislature has used such a system, and their experience shows it's a better way to foster competitive elections, elect more moderates, reduce balkanization, and provide minority representation.

If Governor Schwarzenegger and others really want to do something about the ills of redistricting, simply changing who draws the district lines won't accomplish much. It's necessary to get rid of California's antiquated winner-take-all system, and adopt some version of the more modern proportional representation system.

Steven Hill is Irvine Senior Fellow of the New America Foundation, and author of "Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner Take All Politics" (www.FixingElections.com).