royal brewing over redistricting in California
California, a political volcano is smoldering that is unusual for this
time of the decade. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, has
launched an effort for a mid-decade redistricting by a panel of judges,
taking the line-drawing of legislative districts out of the hands of the
are calling the governor's actions a power grab, like GOP firebrand Tom
DeLay's re-redistricting scheme in Texas. Schwarzenegger has responded by
saying he will call a special election for November 2005 to let the voters
decide. The volcano is building up steam and looks set to blow.
Yet at the
end of the day it all may amount to a tempest in a teapot. When most
nonpartisan experts in California are asked what impact a redistricting
commission will have on state politics, the near-unanimous response is:
not much. Gradual changes in the California political map have weakened
the ability of the line-drawers to affect outcomes.
last 10 to 15 years there has been a dramatic shift in regional partisan
demographics, not only in California but in other states as well.
Red/Republican versus blue/Democrat demographics have become balkanized
along regional lines, with many states having their own red versus blue
patterns within their state.
California, liberal voters and Democrats dominate the coastal areas and
cities, while conservative voters and Republicans dominate the interior
areas. The only way to make California's districts more competitive is to
use the Democratic cities as the hubs of a wheel, and draw the districts
as spokes radiating outward into the more Republican interior. Districts
would have to start in San Francisco and extend across the bay into Contra
Costa County, or start in downtown Los Angeles and extend eastward into
Riverside County. Or districts would have to be narrow east-west bands up
and down the state, creating what has been called the "coral snakeamander"
plan would look ridiculous, and also would undermine the ability of
"communities of interest" such as racial minorities to elect their
representative, leading to legal challenges.
analysts have not yet caught up with this paradigm shift. They are still
thinking about politics the way we used to, without acknowledging the
dramatic shift in the regional partisan demographics that has occurred in
California. But these are the stark dilemmas that face redistricting
practitioners and that will thwart attempts by a California redistricting
commission to create more competitive races.
already use redistricting commissions, and the results have not been
promising because of the same sort of urban/rural splits. In Iowa, long
considered the "poster child" for the effectiveness of redistricting
commissions, all Congressional incumbents easily won reelection in 2004,
and in the state legislature most seats were won by huge landslide margins
with only four seats out of 100 considered tight. Arizona, Washington, and
other states using redistricting commissions have had similarly
That is not
to say that there are not still some states where partisan gerrymanders
have not unfairly tilted the playing field. The Republican gerrymander in
Florida, for instance, has given the GOP 18 out of 25 congressional seats
even though the statewide votes of Democrats and Republicans are about
even. But in states like California, Washington, and others, partisan
regional demographics are trumping the hands of the line-drawers.
California and other states find themselves in a situation where the
problem is not who draws the legislative lines, it's where people live.
Our current politics are about as good as they are going to get as long as
we continue to use an antiquated single-seat district, winner-take-all
electoral system that is so ill-suited for the new California and its wide
range of attitudes, demographics, and geographic regions. New approaches
more competitive races and give bipartisan representation to all parts of
the state, California should adopt a non-winner-take-all voting system
like that used in Peoria, Illinois for municipal elections. Instead of
electing 80 state representatives from 80 districts, voters in 16
districts would elect five representatives each. Any candidate who won at
least a sixth of the vote would earn a seat. These five-seat districts
would see more bipartisan competition, even electing some urban
Republicans and rural Democrats. Occasionally an independent candidate or
a third-party candidate might win a seat, really opening up California
democracy and giving voters more choice. More competition would foster
Schwarzenegger and other reformers are serious about transforming
California politics, that's the plan they should promote. The political
map has shifted, and reformers need to adjust accordingly.
is an Irvine Senior Fellow with the New America Foundation and author of
"Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner Take All Politics" (www.FixingElections.com).