Friday, January 07, 2005

Enough Talk!

Arnold's back, and this legislative sesson he's armed for bear. In his January 5th State of the Union address, the Governator became the only nationally recognized pol to address an aspect of domestic policy as pressing as it is underrecognized - redistricting reform. That last link is to a Brookings Institution draft (couldn't find the final study online, sorry) which gives a pretty good background on the state of redistricting policy in America today. Mann concludes that the most commonly used system - having state legislatures redraw congressional and state district lines (generally every ten years) - has resulted in the two abuses of redistricting power we see today. In states with one-party control of both legislative houses, the dominant party tends to draw a district map which "advances its partisan interests." The Texas Republican party's recent bout of redistricting is a pretty good example of this.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom, neither split-party legislative control nor supermajority voting rules result in the drawing of fair and representative districts. If anything, these conditions produce even less competitive Congressional districts, as they "facilitate bipartisan gerrymanders." When one party is unable to craft a map that works exclusively to its benefit, the two parties tend to collaborate on drawing districts that protect incumbents.

I think Mann understates the depth of this problem. Recent rounds of House elections have been absurdly uncompetitive, to the point where incumbent turnover in the Senate - you know, that body thats supposed to be less responsive to flickers in public opinion - is greater than in the House. As the Center for Voting and Democracy reports, in 2002 a mere 38 of the 435 Congressional districts saw House elections with races which were at all competitive (i.e. the victory was by a margin of less than 10%). Many of these 38 cases only came about because the incumbent retired or died. In the 2004 election, party lines in the House shifted by a seismic seven seat margin. Governor Schwarzenegger said it well (Christ, I can't believe I just wrote that): "Here is a telling statistic: 153 of California's congressional and legislative seats were up in the last election and not one changed parties. What kind of democracy is that?" Schwarzenegger's put his political weight behind moving control of redistricting from the California legislature to "an independent panel of retired judges," a system that would be near ideal when compared to the status quo. If the past year is any guide, this probably means that Schwarzenegger will put his plan into a referendum when it gets derailed in the legislature - and that it will have a good chance of passing.

I'm generally not much of a populist, but redistricting reform is something that's as badly needed in California as it is in the rest of the nation. If referendums are what it takes for Arnold to shove his plan through the California legislative process, then more power to the people.


At 3:32 AM, Blogger Chris said...

This is highly amusing for me as my friends and I have taken to quoting Arnold from the "Pumping Iron" documentary he did like 25 years ago where he says such priceless things as "Milk are for babies, when you get older you drink beer." It's also somewhat disturbing that it takes an Austrian bodybuilder turned actor turned politican to take on redistricting reform seriously. I can't say I've heard of any other politican ever suggesting to reform it.


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