Schwarzenegger vs. Gerrymander
Schwarzenegger visited Washington this week in part to solicit support for
his proposal to change the way California draws its legislative districts.
His efforts are commendable, and his plan won an endorsement from Common
Cause, the government watchdog group. But his plan is unlikely to achieve
his goals because it does not account for the realities of California's
demographic landscape. Governor Schwarzenegger and others are proposing
that redistricting be taken out of the hands of the incumbents and given
to an independent body, like a panel of impartial retired judges. Yet
several states already use independent commissions, and the results are
instance, in Arizona, where an independent panel delineates districts, all
eight Congressional incumbents won re-election last year with an average
margin of victory of 34 percent. In the State Senate, none of the 30 seats
were competitive; in fact, more than half of the seats were uncontested by
one of the two major parties (even though Arizona has public financing of
elections, which should encourage more candidates). Other states that use
independent or bipartisan redistricting commissions of one kind or
another, like Iowa, New Jersey, and Washington, also had mostly
noncompetitive Congressional elections in 2004.
is not who draws the legislative lines — it's where people live. Take a
look at a map of California that shows which areas voted for John Kerry
and which voted for President Bush. It looks the same as the map for Al
Gore and Mr. Bush four years earlier. It will look much the same for the
Republican and Democratic candidates in 2008. As they have in many states,
regional partisan leanings in California have become entrenched over the
past 20 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 political map.
there aren't plenty of Democrats living in mostly Republican areas (and
vice versa) — as well as independents and third-party supporters all over.
It's just that they are "orphaned voters" whose candidates almost never
win. But it's not because of redistricting. It's because regional partisan
demographics are exaggerated by the method by which California elects its
representatives — the single-seat-district, winner-take-all electoral
The only way
to make districts more competitive would be to use the Democratic urban
areas as the hubs of a wheel, and draw the districts as spokes radiating
outward from the urban hub into the more Republican interior. In Southern
California, there would need to be narrow districts beginning in downtown
Los Angeles and extending east to Riverside and San Bernardino Counties.
In the Bay Area, the districts would begin in San Francisco and extend
across the bay into Contra Costa County. Some of them might be narrow
corridors extending from the Pacific Ocean to the Nevada or Arizona
districts would be competitive, but they would also look ridiculous.
Moreover, they would probably run afoul of the federal Voting Rights Act,
which is intended to ensure minority representation. There is a trade-off
between creating more competitive districts and giving minority
communities a fair chance of electing representatives. So Governor
Schwarzenegger's plan, while well intentioned, is bound to fail. The old
ways of thinking about redistricting and its impact no longer apply in
California — or in many other states. Shifting demographics have
outstripped the abilities of the mapmakers to encourage competitiveness.
nonpartisan redistricting commission may make a few more legislative seats
more competitive. And it certainly would have the salutary effect of
changing the public perception that incumbents have a hand in rigging
their own district lines. But such tinkering is not likely to change much
else. It will not "blow up the boxes" of state government, as Mr.
Schwarzenegger has said he wishes to do.
It may well
be that California's electoral system, like the rest of America's, has
reached its endgame. Our current politics are as good as they are going to
be as long as we continue to use an antiquated method that is so ill
suited for the new California and its wide range of attitudes,
demographics, and geographic regions.
change where people choose to live, but we can begin using some type of
proportional representation system. For example, California could use a
system like that used in Peoria, Ill. for municipal elections. Instead of
electing 40 state senators from 40 districts, voters in 10 districts could
elect four senators each. Any candidate who won at least a quarter of the
vote would earn a seat. These districts would be far more likely to be
bipartisan, even electing some urban Republicans and rural Democrats.
path that the governor should pursue, if he is serious about reforming his
state's politics. And it's a path the rest of the nation's governors
should examine as well.
a fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author of
"Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner-Take-All Politics."