[One in a series on the California special election]
Let me say first that I am utterly appalled and, as a democrat (please note: small ‘d’), embarrassed that we still permit politicians to draw electoral-district lines. But is Prop. 77 on California’s Nov. 8 ballot the right fix?
If ever there was a constitutional provision that requires the initiative process to fix, redistricting, something in which politicians have a clear vested interest, would be one of the best examples. For a long time I assumed that this was one measure on which I would “join Arnold.” But the closer we get to the election, the more uncertain I am. There is now almost no chance I will vote for it, though I may simply abstain on it.
I think it is clear that Democrats (note: large ‘D’) should vote no. I also think that proportional-repersentation advocates (like me) should see this as an argument about where the chairs should be placed on the Titanic‘s deck (as a CFER press release put it).
There is little chance that the proposed “neutral” redistricting will generate significant increases in the two-party competitiveness of legislative districts in California. The only way to inject competitiveness is to use multi-seat districts and PR so that partisan (and other) minorities can win their fair share of representation.
As a PR advocate, there is part of me that says the right thing to do is vote for this, hope it passes, and then wait and see the frustration rise as people discover it has had little effect, and the legislature is still out of touch.
But, quite apart from how we get from here to PR, there are real problems with the measure.
First of all, it includes Congressional districts as well as state legislative districts. California is a state currently and probably for some time to come dominated by the Democratic Party. While, as I said already, I would not expect this measure to result in significantly more competitive districts, I think Democrats should ask themselves why take the risk? That is, why unilaterally disarm and allow even a small nunber of our congressional districts to change parties (independent of vote shifts), absent assurances that other large states dominated by Republicans will do the same? Even though I am neither a Democrat nor a Republican, as long as these two parties are the only game in town (that is, until we break their stranglehold by PR), I do not want to see one side (e.g., the minority in California) potentially benefit without assurances that Republican-dominated states will also become more competitive (however marginally) for the minority in their states.
There are measures on the ballots of other states. But how do we know that the measure in, for example, Republican-dominated Ohio, will pass? I would like to see a future redistricting reform measure with a “trigger” that says it takes effect for the state’s congressional delegation only when a certain number of other states have done the same.
I also object to the specific commission the measure would set up. It is a commission of retired judges, appointed by legislative leaders. Judges are not neutral, even if they are obviously less partisan than legisaltors. The very fact that the leaders of each party in the legislature get to pick their own retired judges for the panel is an admission that judges are not neutral. The panel could thus continue to produce bipartisan gerrymanders, even allowing for its being bound by more objective criteria of competitiveness than are the politicians who currently draw districts.
I would prefer a more citizen-driven and expert-staffed commission so that the commissioners actually know something about elections and electoral districting. The commissioners should not be selected by politicians. Ideally, the commission would contain a mix of scholars who specialize in electoral politics (no, I am not volunteering until it is a PR system we are talking about!), and delegates of “good governance” groups in the electorate (League of Women Voters, and other organizations come to mind). I have no idea how to actually structure such a commission, but brighter minds than mine could come up with better ideas than a panel of retited judges appointed by politicians.
Finally, I just think it is wrong to re-district between censuses. This is the aspect that most makes it look like a partisan power grab.
I think it should be defeated, though I remain queasy about voting against a measure the result of which would undoubtedly be better than the status quo (in terms of fair districting). Will we get another chance? I think the answer is yes, because I think the problem of uncompetitive elections is not going away.
While I would rather see the debate be about PR than about the best way to manage an inherently flawed, archaic, and unrepresentative electoral system, it may be that we have to pass through a phase of neutral redistricting (which other single-member-district countries adopted long ago) before people recognize that more fundamental reform is what is required to make elections fair. Whaetver the outcome in California and other states on November 8, I think we will have other chances. But it needs to be a comprehensive national movement, and not one state at a time, and not mandate between-census redistricting.