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The Pointlessness of Redistricting Reform

by: Robert Cruickshank

Mon Aug 25, 2008 at 09:37:14 AM PDT

While most of the Calitics editorial board is conventioning in Denver this week I'm holding down the fort back here in California. I love the Mile High City, but with the onset of Monterey's summer I don't think I'm going to miss much.

Which gives me time to focus on one of the ongoing arguments over this fall's ballot, specifically over Proposition 11 - redistricting reform. Over at the California Progress Report Frank Russo has been hosting a running debate on the topic, with Democratic redistricting expert Bill Cavala taking on all challengers in his effort to explain why Prop 11 is a bad idea.

Cavala defends himself well and certainly doesn't need my help, but today's pro-Prop 11 article from the president of the CA branch of the AARP is so full of flaws that I felt compelled to add my two cents.

Jeannine English's article repeats the two most common errors of Prop 11 advocates: 1) making the assumption that legislative-controlled redistricting is at the core of our state's problems, and 2) that redistricting reform will produce a less partisan legislature and therefore solve our state's problems. Both are completely false. It is a reform in search of a problem. From English's article:

The question California voters should ask themselves this November is this: "is the status quo in Sacramento working for me?" Considering the state's ongoing budget problems, lack of health care reform despite years of debate, regular cuts to social services, and a host of other issues that are not being properly addressed in the state, the answer from all but political insiders will likely be "no, the status quo is not working for me."...

So now its time for voters to get it done. Prop. 11, written over two years by voting rights attorneys and experts in consultation with Californians of all ideological persuasions, will create fair redistricting in California so incumbents are not guaranteed their reelection but actually have to work for their votes. With Prop 11's passage, legislators will have to work better together to solve the problems Californian's care about, instead of staying in their partisan corners.

This is a slick move to cast Prop 11 as a solution to the state's problems, but it ignores some important truths. The reason Sacramento is broken is because a far-right Republican minority bent on destroying public services has repeatedly exploited the 2/3 rule to prevent the state from putting its fiscal house in order. Those two problems - a wingnut Republican caucus and the 2/3 rule - are without a doubt the major obstacles to a state government that works.

Redistricting reform solves neither of these problems. Instead it stems from the misguided belief that what California has is too much partisanship - a stance that lets the Republicans off the hook and hides from voters the real work Democrats have done to compromise and fix the budget.

It also errs in assuming that it's even possible to make competitive districts in California. There's no way to make San Francisco or south Orange County anything but a safe seat for one party or the other without gerrymandering on a far more egregious scale than anything currently done.

That being said, is there a significant downside to Democrats from Prop 11, even if it's a pointless reform? After all, Washington State has used a similar independent process to draw districts since 1983 and today Dems have 2/3 majorities in both houses of the state legislature.

In fact downsides do exist. The "independent commission" is not an accurate representation of the state's political demography. Republicans and Democrats would have the same number of seats on the commission, despite the fact that Democrats have over a million more registered voters in California. Prop 11 gives Republicans an artificial advantage that they have not earned and do not deserve.

Bill Cavala has argued convincingly that a redistricting commission could wind up shifting enough seats to the Republicans to move Democrats from having a realistic shot at 2/3 majorities to having to defend their majority. And he quite rightly points out that the current "moderates" in the Republican Party have consistently voted in lockstep with the wingnuts, suggesting how out of touch Prop 11's proponents are.

The most frustrating aspect of Prop 11 may be how much time and energy it is diverting from the real issues facing California. Why aren't the so-called "good government" groups making a stronger push to get rid of the 2/3 rule? We can see its damaging effect on the state right now with a budget crisis dragging on with no end in sight. If groups like the AARP really want to fix a broken California, they should direct their resources to fixing that issue.

Robert Cruickshank :: The Pointlessness of Redistricting Reform
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Capitol Weekly rankings (0.00 / 0)
You can get them here.

No Republican scored greater than a 22, while several Democrats went down to the lower 50s. It's clear the problem isn't the districts per se, it's the quality of the Republicans. There are a lot of reforms that could possibly help with this, but redistricting isn't one of them.

A few years back, somebody proposed open primaries. I think it was Joe Canciamilla. You could also just do a "top 2" in the primary advance to the general, like Washington state does.  All of these have major flaws, but if your goal is simply to get moderates, that would be more effective.

I think?

The system is broken (0.00 / 0)
You cannot fix a district-winner-takes-all system, because it is inherently flawed to begin with. You cannot draw a perfect district, because no such thing exists. You could appoint a commission of angels to redraw districts and they would never get it right. Furthermore, the winner-take-all aspect of our system relegates each district to one or the other party, which doesn't leave any voter with any voting power or choice.

The real solution is proportional democracy. Scrap the districts and let people vote for the party they want to. Let that party be represented in the Assembly based on the proportion of California voters who voted for them. Problem solved. Voters get to vote for the party they really want, and their views are represented at the state level.

Not sure about that (0.00 / 0)
If we want to solve the problem the following steps are needed:

1) Abolish the 2/3 rule

2) Lengthen term limits

The second is needed because many Republicans have their eye on higher office. If they vote for a tax increase they'll get whacked in the primary for that higher office by another Republican who will say "Joe Blow voted for a tax increase!" Extended term limits might cut down on this somewhat.

You can check out any time you like but you can never leave

[ Parent ]
then think about it (0.00 / 0)
What do you mean you're not sure about that? Look at it. If you are a voter, and the district lines have been drawn around you, you have no voting power--especially since you can only vote for 1 of 2 parties. It means your district is predetermined to go one way. Also.. it you only have two directions to go since it is a winner-takes-all system. If we go to a proportional system, there won't just be Democrats and Republicans in the mix. There will be other parties represented. Since these parties don't exist on a national level, voters would be forced to actually think about California when voting and not just Republicans vs. Democrats that carry with them their national counterparts, which have nothing to do with state politics. Finally, since there are more than two parties in the mix with proportional democracy, politicians within a party have to actually form a policy platform and elucidate what their plan for office is. Under the current 2 party system it is easy to play on people's frustration with a failed system by saying it is the party in power that is to blame. Instead, logical arguments have to be used to defend a policy.

I agree that our current scheme of short term limits are a problem though. Certainly there are things that can be done to improve the situation in the short-term, which you have mentioned, however in the long term, systemic changes need to be made to make California function more democratically, responsibly, autonomously from national politics.

Wasn't it not long ago that Republicans were arguing for more federalism, and that was their excuse for defunding national government? Well now we have a defunct national government that cannot even react to regional disasters. States need to pick up the burden of governing. California seems like it is one of the only states that has so far been able to cope with that burden, and we aren't doing it particularly well.

[ Parent ]
Hmm. (0.00 / 0)
Here in Monterey the lines have been "drawn around us" - our assembly district hugs the coast of Monterey Bay and is dominated by Democrats. As a result we get to send some VERY progressive people to Sacramento - Fred Keeley, John Laird, and soon Bill Monning. We LIKE it that way. We're a bit annoyed with the drawing of the State Senate district, but because it splits the Monterey Bay area, not because it's closely balanced.

In much of California one party is more likely to win than the other. That's not because of the way districts are drawn, but because of the way people choose to live. The Bay Area is dominated by Democrats because that's what people want. Republicans could pour as much money as they wanted into it and they'd still get their ass kicked because Bay Area voters hate Republicans. Prop 11 won't change that fundamental fact.

If you want California to function autonomously from the failed national government, there is really only one way to successfully accomplish that, especially considering how the US Constitution gives the federal government near total power over basic economic and fiscal policy...

You can check out any time you like but you can never leave

[ Parent ]
Supporters (0.00 / 0)
I am glad you mentioned Fred Keeley. He has been involved in redistricting reform for a long time and is a big supporter of this initiative. You can read his editorial on the subject in which he counters what Bill Cavala said here.

There are many other former legislators, politicians and groups, nonpartisan and from both sides of the aisle that have come together to support this initiative.

The current Senate district that you mention splits Monterey, is represented by a Republican from San Luis Obispo. The goal of the initiative is to prevent these splits of Cities and Counties, so when issues, such as an oil spill or flooding occur there is one representative to deal with the issue, not two or three that dont care because they only have a portion of the area. The initiative text above says party membership can NOT be taken into account when drawing lines.

[ Parent ]
ok (0.00 / 0)
I'm not advocating total autonomy from the failed national government. I'm saying that states are now being put in the situation that they have to start taking up the burden of governing since the national government has been defunded. Yeah, I know there are plenty of areas that the national government has exclusive jurisdiction over, and therefore states cannot take over total governance, however, states can still improve basic government services where states still have power despite some federal regulation like in transportation, emergency preparedness, and energy.

To come back to your first point though, the idea that one party is more likely to win than the other is a characteristic of winner-take-all district apportioned systems. When you say the Bay Area is dominated by Democrats because that is what the people want, you inevitably exclude all those Republicans in the Tri-Valley. Furthermore, you exclude all those "Democrats" who wouldn't vote Democrat if they had a choice. Once you envision the system I'm talking about, the terms Republican and Democrat become irrelevant. It is like looking at a rainbow after living in a black and white world your entire life. I believe that if we had proportional democracy, the Republican and Democratic parties would undergo significant changes as the fractures within those parties would divide them into different parties. I imagine many Republicans would leave and go to the Libertarian party--god help us. Many Dem's would vote Green. Nobody can really predict what that paradigm would look like, but it would be a breath of fresh air from this clausterphobic black and white system we have now.

[ Parent ]
also one quick note (0.00 / 0)
Even if you are in a district that votes the way you do, your voting power is still diluted, because the district will inevitably go your way, whereas in a more competitive district, your vote would have more power when you know the other party could possibly muster the 1 vote it needs to push it to 50% + 1. Therefore, voting Democrat in a Democratic district makes the whole voting process seem rather pointless, just as voting Republican in a Democratic district does.

[ Parent ]
Yes on Prop 11 (0.00 / 0)
Prop 11 may not do everything we need to fix California, but it is most definitely a step in the right direction. Having legislators draw their own districts is a big conflict of interest. We need a non-partisan method of drawing districts, like Prop 11, so communities, cities and counties are not diced in to little pieces to prevent competition, and serve the interest of incumbent legislators.

The gerrymander of 2001 has hurt the Democrats. During the 2006 cycle we saw only one Democratic pick up in California and only one other competitive race. In other large states like New York, Pennsylvania, and Indiana the Democrats gained 3-4 seats each with many more seats competitive. With the Prop 11 commission plan, Democratic and Republican legislators can't create incumbent protection plans that ignore the will of the voters and ensure their reelection.

We don't know what the maps will look like in 2011, but if Prop 11 passes, they will be drawn using a fair process that removes the current conflict of interest.

We can't continue to let the politicians choose their voters, in a democracy it must be the voters who choose their politicians.

there is no good district though (0.00 / 0)
How will your committee of angels draw lines? I guarantee politics will play a part in the drawing of the lines no matter what. You cannot avoid it in the district system. Abandon districts, and we allow California to enter into the modern democratic paradigm that European countries have been in since after World War II. Proportional Democracy is the only way to represent the voting electorate. Democracy needs to function by allowing politics to take place after elections, not before them. People must for opinions and have a choice between not just black and white, but rather multiple viewpoints when they vote.

we need to forget about whether this will hurt Democrats or hurt Republicans, because really what we need is a just and equitable system that represents the Californian voting electorate without bias. If that means moving away from a two party sytem, then that should be completely OK. California would do well to show the rest of the country what real democracy is.

[ Parent ]
A just and equitable system (0.00 / 0)
Would not have equal representation of Democrats and Republicans when they are far from equal in terms of registered voters. Which is why Prop 11 is a bad idea that should be relegated to the scrap heap of ballot initiative history.

You can check out any time you like but you can never leave

[ Parent ]
Drawing the lines (0.00 / 0)
The commission that is chosen by the State Auditor, after a series of checks, screening and sorting to identify the most qualified and ensure diversity, is given specific criteria for drawing the lines. Here is what is in the initiative:

(d) The commission shall establish single-member districts for the Senate, Assembly and State Board of Equalization pursuant to a mapping process using the following criteria as set forth in the following order of priority:
(1) Districts shall comply with the United States Constitution. Senate, Assembly, and State Board of Equalization districts shall have reasonably equal population with other districts for the same office, except where deviation is required to comply with the federal Voting Rights Act or allowable by law.
(2) Districts shall comply with the federal Voting Rights Act (42 U.S.C. Sec. 1971 and following).
(3) Districts shall be geographically contiguous.
(4) The geographic integrity of any city, county, city and county, neighborhood, or community of interest shall be respected to the extent possible without violating the requirements of any of the preceding subdivisions.  Communities of interest shall not include relationships  with political parties, incumbents or political candidates.
(5) To the extent practicable, and where this does not conflict with the criteria above, districts shall be drawn to encourage geographical compactness such that nearby areas of population are not bypassed for more distant population.
(6) To the extent practicable, and where this does not conflict with the criteria above, each Senate district shall be comprised of two whole, complete and adjacent Assembly districts, and each Board of Equalization district shall be comprised of 10 whole, complete and adjacent  Senate districts.
(e) The place of residence of any incumbent or political candidate shall not be considered in the creation of a map.  Districts shall not be drawn for the purpose of favoring or discriminating against an incumbent, political candidate, or political party.  

[ Parent ]
Here's what's also in the initiative (0.00 / 0)
Republicans get as many seats on the commission as Dems do despite having significantly smaller voter registration.  Prop 11 enshrines that basic inequity in the constitution.

This initiative also excludes people with even the most tangential affiliation with politics from serving on the commission.  So a bunch of apathetic people who know nothing about a complex process are put in a room to review maps drawn by staffers with agendas.  Gee what could possibly go wrong there?

Our experienced map drawers would be prohibited from participating in the process, because they are on government payrolls.  Their map drawers are in right-wing think tanks and law firms.  They get to participate.  Seems fair to you?

Why are you willing to give GOPers power they haven't earned at the ballot box?

[ Parent ]
Some flawed logic there (0.00 / 0)
Do legislators really "draw their own districts?" With term limits they usually only get a few years' benefit from it.

Further, as I said in the article, it's very difficult in most of California to draw evenly balanced districts without truly extreme gerrymandering (like putting SF and Modesto in the same district). Here in Monterey it's not possible. Not possible in most of the Bay Area. No possible in much of Southern California. Not possible in the Central Valley.

The gerrymander of 2001 was not good for Dems in that it limited their ability to grow their majority, but it doesn't follow at all that the reason it was flawed is because legislators drew the districts.

Also, to my knowledge, none of those states you cited use an independent redistricting method. Doesn't that kind of negate your core argument?

Finally, this notion that voters are denied a voice in elections under legislative reapportionment is flatly absurd. If you've drawn districts where one party has an advantage over the other, isn't it the case that voters are voting for exactly who they want?!


You can check out any time you like but you can never leave

[ Parent ]
just to respond to the last point -- it isn't flatly absurd at all. (0.00 / 0)
Not sure if this one was directed at me, but my answer to your last point is- Not really. There's nothing absurd about it. If you have 51% of the voting electorate in a given district voting Democrat and 49% voting Republican, then the district goes to the Democrats. That means 49% of the district has no representation. I realize that most districts have higher safety percentages than that and go more toward 60-70% range for one party, but you still end up alienating a large percentage of the population when you give a district completely to the "winner." Which by the way, the idea of a competition seems absurd when it is really just people voting for their viewpoints. It isn't athletic. This is about representing the views of the people, not about seeing which political viewpoint is competitively better. The district system does a terrible job at representation.

Furthermore, those who don't feel represented by either party don't have the option of voting for a different party, because it is inherent in the winner-takes-all system that political power will crystalize into two parties. I can vote for the green party if I want to, but I won't be represented. So do I have a voice? The rational actor in that situation would just vote for the Democrats since they seem more in line with Green ideas than the Republicans, or that person just wouldn't vote at all. But it is the same for voting Democrat in a Republican gerrymandered district. Sure you can vote the way you want, but when you have a 100% probability of not being represented by the party you vote for, what is the point of voting?

And I believe that is a big reason why many Californians don't vote. I can't remember what our voter turn-out rate is, but it is one of the lowest in the country. Our politics are different than the rest of the country's. This is reflected in the terms "California Republicans" or "San Francisco liberals." It shows that our voting electorate doesn't feel like it really fits into one of the two national parties, so we attempt to deform those parties into our own making. But really, most California Democrat's and Republicans would probably vote for a different party if they really had the choice.

So there is the answer. Voters can cast a ballot in their neatly gerrymandered district, and this accomplishes the task of "voicing" themselves--as you so aptly put it, but if they don't receive representation for their voice, then they don't really have a voice after all, do they? They are just talking into a wall.

[ Parent ]
I find it hard to believe (0.00 / 0)
that anyone is defending the idea that legislators should select their voters instead of voters selecting their legislators.
The bottom line is that we need something more democratic, and I can't see how Prop 11 is any worse than what we have now. It's not about Republicans, and it's not about Democrats, or any other party. It's about the voters. By voting against Prop 11, you are saying it's worse than the status quo.

The penalty that good men pay for not being interested in politics is to be governed by men worse than themselves - Plato, philosopher (427-347 BCE)

It is. (0.00 / 0)
And your GOP talking point needs to be freshened, it hasn't worked the last 7 times and it won't work this time.

[ Parent ]
Don't even go there (0.00 / 0)
I am not a Republican. I am a Democrat. This is the first time I've posted about this topic.

The penalty that good men pay for not being interested in politics is to be governed by men worse than themselves - Plato, philosopher (427-347 BCE)

[ Parent ]
Not saying you are (0.00 / 0)
Saying you're aping GOP talking points.  And tired, innefective ones at that.

[ Parent ]
I don't see it that way at all (0.00 / 0)
Prop 11 looks like a solution in search of a problem. As I explained in the article, the primary issue we face is a 2/3 rule that enables a far-right Republican caucus to hold the state hostage and block long-term reform.

Redistricting reform won't solve either problem. And by pointing to the status quo you're implying that any reform is a good reform - which should not apply to Prop 11.

You can check out any time you like but you can never leave

[ Parent ]
yeah it is worse (0.00 / 0)
at least with political gerrymandering as it is now, the two parties can use their usual political wheeling and dealing to pull off some terrible compromise redistricting scheme. But when you put the districting process into the hands of a committee of "non-partisan" angels.. look out. As I've said before, there just is no such thing as a perfect district. Anyone who tells you they can draw districts in a more equitable fashion are deluding themselves. The districts are a problem in themselves.

but I will have to agree with Mr. Monterey here that the 2/3's rule is terrible and has got to be scrapped somehow. That is definitely one of the big causes of our meltdown situation currently.

But I don't believe problems will all end there. We need to have long-term thinking in politics, and the best way to do that is with proportional multi-party democracy. When the party that gets the majority votes has to choose a coalition party, it forces them to create a plan for their period of power. This leads to long-term thinking instead of short term individualistic politics that is left for the next government to clean up.

[ Parent ]
the simplest way to competitive races (0.00 / 0)
would be for the republicans to run canddiates that match the political beliefs of their constituents, not just whackjob wingnuts.

run a pro-choice, non-race baiting, gay-friendly, good government republican in the bay area, and you might see a different sort of political balance.

it's not the districts that are the problem, its' the unwillingness of the republican party to run candidates in tune with the voters in a majority of the state's districts.

hell, if there were republicans that aligned better with my views than the democrat in the race, i'd consider them. but there aren't, so i won't.

the right has noone but themselves to blame for their marginality. win a majority, and then you can draw the lines. until then, they'd do best to look in the mirror for reasons.

Where to place resources (0.00 / 0)
I completely agree that when it comes down to where progressive/good government activists should be putting their time and money, it really doesn't seem like Prop. 11 produces enough results to be the place. As you argue, repealing the 2/3 rule and extending term limits would have a far more beneficial effect on the way our state legislature operates.

And by the way, one of the greatest accounts of redistricting can be found in 'Rage for Justice,' a biography of Phil Burton. If Democrats have the majority, we should hold on to that majority and use it to our advantage every year redistricting happens. We've just got to be smart, and put more legislative geniuses like Burton in office to ensure the result serves our goals.

Back and glad to see that NO on 11 is being covered here (0.00 / 0)

This was the article I posted last month before going to Europe and getting the Swiss perspective on our presidential race. I believe it was the first analysis of 11 in both Calitics and the California Progress Report, and it did cause a stir.

Looking back on it, I see 11 as a masterful ploy that continues to split the Democrats, many of whom still do NOT understand that this is a serious attempt by the long-range thinking Republicans to begin chipping away at that huge Democratic majority.

And, this ballot measure, combined with their parental notification and anti-gay marriage propositions, will be heavily funded to bring out their voters in November.  

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