Plan Districts to Safeguard Democracy

CA needs nonpartisan redistricting

The big USC-UCLA showdown is on the horizon, but imagine if there was a twist, and UCLA was allowed to choose USC’s lineup. To maximize its own chances, UCLA would likely pick a lineup that would bench Trojan All-Americans like Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush.

While the concept seems absurd, that is pretty much how we let the political party in power pick and choose our legislative and congressional districts in California.

Proposition 77 would create a more competitive climate in elections by removing the ability of elected officials to essentially draw their own districts, handing the process over to a panel of retired judges. But unlike tilting the rules in college football, which would create a huge advantage for one team, redistricting does not guarantee the dominance of either major political party.

Consider the Republicans’ fate following the contentious redistricting battle of 1991. Legislative Democrats submitted their favored maps to then-Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, who subsequently vetoed them. The California Supreme Court stepped in, appointing three special masters to craft a redistricting plan. And the fairness of that new plan would be seen in the following several election cycles.

By 1994, with the new districts in place, Republicans gained a slim 41-39 majority in the California State Assembly for the first time in more than 20 years, ending the long reign of Speaker Willie Brown.

But between 1994 and 2000, Republicans promptly lost 11 Assembly seats back to Democrats, actually placing them in a worse balance of power than before the fair redistricting plan. Many Republicans rightly blame the troubles of that period not on flawed district maps, but on a misguided and dysfunctional state party that lacked a cohesive vision.

Politics should be about serving your constituents, not computer-drawn maps that ensure success. It is now well known that in California’s 2004 election cycle, every single congressional, Assembly and state Senate seat up for grabs stayed with the party that held it. It’s hard to believe not a single seat changed parties at a time when voters were less than thrilled with the direction of the state.

But for many, politics has become about protecting power.

Republicans are supporting redistricting here in California, where they hope to pick up seats in the state Legislature, but are fighting the same concept in other states, like Ohio, where they are currently in a better position. Reform-minded California Assemblyman Joe Canciamilla, D-Pittsburg, is bucking many in his party by supporting the plan. “If we fail in this effort, we are providing a mandate for those who want to keep the status quo,” he said.

Canciamilla knows that fair districts give voters a real chance to influence policy. And he knows the current hopes of an independent Mr. Smith going to Sacramento are a long shot, unless of course, Mr. Smith has millions of his own money to spend.

A neutral redistricting plan will help independent candidates by reducing the political dominance of special interests and party apparatchiks during the primary season.

In primaries, candidates do not need to appeal to cross-over voters or independents. Successful primary candidates focus on making a strong pitch to the political base within their party and its biggest supporters – usually powerful special interests groups. Candidates emerging from labor unions, for instance, tend to fare quite well in Democratic primaries because they bring a ready-made “base” with them to the polls.

In a more competitive system, without tailor-made district boundaries, candidates and platforms reflecting the diversity of our actual neighborhoods would be more successful.

The fact that partisans in both parties claim that changing the rules of redistricting will hamper their party’s political fortunes reflects how the current system of drawing political boundaries has morphed into an exercise of political power. Meanwhile, most voters would agree that political boundaries should be drawn to protect democracy, not circumvent it for special interests and a few politicians.

George Passantino is a senior fellow in government reform at the Reason Foundation and served as a director of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s California Performance Review.