Real Facts About Redistricting Reform

There are a number of difficult decisions that face every redistricting reform author, and the current effort by the Governor, Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, and AARP is no exception. Clearly, decisions such as excluding Congress are controversial, as are questions about the application and screening process, and such questions should be raised and answered during this process.

The recent statements of the incumbent protection crowd, however, strike a note of desperation. On the California Majority Report, Josiah Green writes “communities of interest are put above political city/boundary lines — likely dividing ethnic communities.” Mr. Green is apparently unaware that many ethnic communities in California cross city boundaries and a number of civil rights organizations insisted on communities having precedence over cities. The precedence given to “communities of interest” reveals that the concerns of those civil rights groups prevailed over the more city- and county-focused desires of others negotiating the measure’s provisions.

Even the new report from the highly respected PPIC is mistaken in its description and categorization the potential impact of redistricting reform efforts on California politics. Eric McGhee of PPIC says “Partisan tides, political scandal, and changing demography can alter a district’s voting habits over time.” Yet Mr. McGhee bases this conclusion on a study written in 1984 – when personal computers were in their infancy, census data was much less specific, and databases of political history were rounded approximations at best. As the 2001 gerrymander has proven, modern computers, modern databases, and all-powerful incumbents placing self-protection above all other concerns can create a powerful and long-lasting perfect wall against any changes in the views California’s communities and voters.

Congressman Pombo stands as the exception that proves this rule. His district is the only one to change hands under the current district lines, out of over 300 Assembly, State Senate and Congressional elections. He lost in a close race when over forty percent of his 2004 supporters decided to sit out the 2006 election. If only thirty three percent of the Congressman’s supporters had decided not to support him, instead of forty percent, then Mr. Pombo would still be a Congressman today. That is the power of California’s 2001 gerrymander: it can require rejection by more than one-third of an elected official’s previous supporters before that elected official’s re-election chances are in doubt.

Mr. McGhee’s characterization of Proposition 77 is unfortunately inaccurate: “The judges would have been selected mostly at random, with at least one from each major party and with no allowance for a neutral, nonpartisan tiebreaker.” Mr. McGhee missed that there was no tiebreaker needed because a unanimous vote of all three Commission members was required by Proposition 77. There is no tiebreaker in a 3 to 0 vote.

Perhaps because of his misunderstanding of Proposition 77, Mr. McGhee wrote of Proposition 77 that “[g]iven California’s geographical clustering by party, this last requirement might easily have produced an uncompetitive, bipartisan plan.” Mr. McGhee’s speculation runs counter to the research: studies by the Rose Institute, USC’s California Policy Institute and UC Berkeley’s Institute for Governmental Studies all agreed that districts drawn under the rules of Proposition 77 would result in scores of competitive districts (and before Mr. Maviglio launches another tortured metaphor in the comments, let me point out that our estimate of the number of competitive districts was lower than that of IGS). It is noteworthy that none of the three studies are listed as sources for his report.

A larger concern completely ignored by Mr. McGhee is the fundamental goal of redistricting reform: ensuring that districts provide representation for local communities. America’s basic political structure builds on local entities grouped into county entities grouped in to state and federal entities, and districts should reflect that system. This would have three results: voters would feel more of a connection to the legislator from their community, compared to one living scores or even hundreds of miles away; local concerns would act as a counterweight to purely partisan or powerful but Sacramento-based special interest groups; and, in California at least, community-oriented districts naturally create scores of competitive legislative and Congressional districts.

The ultimate price of incumbent protection gerrymandering is paid by California’s voters and these local communities. The 2001 gerrymander strung cities and communities in long ribbons of partisanship, carefully ensuring that a candidate’s local reputation, history and accomplishments would be intentionally diluted by including distant communities with no awareness of that record. By design, the 2001 gerrymander flooded newspaper and television markets with too many parts of too many districts for them to thoroughly cover elections. As a result, direct mail and phone banks dominate campaigns, leaving candidates at the mercy of the special interests in Sacramento with the millions of dollars needed to create ‘instant reputations’ for their anointed candidate.

The PPIC report minimizes the importance of redistricting to effective functioning of the legislature, but let me highlight that the proof of the Rose Institute’s reform-focused view is buried in the PPIC report itself: “Republican support [for state budgets] was higher in the 1990s, but since 2000, a majority of Republicans has voted against the budget in all but two years.” This important indicator of Sacramento’s ability to get its job done was buried in the report’s notes, in footnote 23.

There are many issues that can be debated surrounding redistricting reform, but its impact on the state’s politics, and its impact on our communities, is clear.

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