Monday, October 17, 2005

Redistricting: Devil's in the Details

Over the weekend, Markos of DailyKos, pondering his California absentee ballot, posed a very pertinent question: why shouldn't he vote for Proposition 77, Arnold Schwarzenneger's redistricting reform initiative? Yes, he suggests, it might have a short-term negative impact on Democratic margins in the congressional delegation and the state legislature, but if it contributes to a national redistricting reform movement, it's likely to help Democrats nationally, particularly if Democratic-backed reform initiatives in Ohio (this year) and Florida (next year) succeed as well.

I can't answer Markos' question definitively, but do want to draw attention to peculiarities of the California initiative that make it different from those in the other states. I've written about this subject extensively here and here (note that the first piece was written before the Ohio initiative got underway, while the second was written before the California initiative overcame a judicial challenge), so I'll just hit the high points.

Prop 77 relies heavily on the assumption that nonpartisan redistricting is (a) feasible, and (b) will produce a more balanced map. Both these assumptions are very questionable. But that's why the initiative focuses so heavily on who draws the maps, rather than what criteria they use. The Ohio initiative (and for that matter, the Florida initiative that's now in a legal limbo) requires use of partisan voter registration and performance data to create an overall redistricting plan that maximizes both competitive districts and statewide partisan fairness, while the California initiative prohibits use of such data and does not make competitiveness or partisan fairness criteria at all.

The one state that has successfully applied this take-the-politics-out approach to redistricting is Iowa, but Iowa, with its relatively homogenous population, stable partisan balance, and strong "good government" tradition, is not California, by a long shot. So in the end, Prop 77 is pretty much a leap into the unknown.

Thus, for Democrats in particular, the decision on Prop 77 is pretty much a matter of how you feel about the current map and the system that created it. But there's one major piece of misinformation circulating (it's very visible in the comment thread after Markos' post) that needs to be refuted: the idea that the current map is a standard-brand partisan gerrymander that maximized Democratic seats. Not so. For both the congressional delegation and the state legislature, the Democratic leadership pursued an incumbent-protection strategy that all but eliminated competitive districts. Yes, it created a floor under Democratic majorities, but also created a ceiling. In effect, the map traded potential opportunities to win new Democratic seats for the assurance that incumbents wouldn't have to worry about general elections. (Another motive, according to everybody I've talked to, was to enable primary challenges to centrist Democrats in the state legislature, many of which succeeded).

California's situation is in sharp contrast to that of Ohio and Florida, where the reigning Republicans did indeed focus on partisan advantage to the exclusion of virtually every other factor.

In other words, the Democratic advantage in California's congressional delegation and state legislature is the product of an unavoidable Democratic advantage among voters, not of Democratic control of redistricting. And there's no particular reason to believe the system established by Prop 77 would change that reality.

The bottom line for me is that I don't like the system set out in Prop 77, but I also don't think partisanship is a good reason for opposing it, particularly since the current map is so egregiously aimed at eliminating competition altogether.

I hope this analysis helps Markos and other California Dems make their decision. All redistricting reforms are not created equal; nor is the status quo in Democratic and Republican-controlled states the same. It's entirely possible to oppose Prop 77 while supporting the initiatives in Ohio and Florida on substantive grounds, but not because California's current system is particularly good for Democrats, or for democracy.
-- Posted at 9:29 AM | Link to this post | Email this post

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