Learning to love gerrymandering

ETHAN RARICK, acting director of the Center on Politics at the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies, is the author of "California Rising: The Life and Times of Pat Brown" (UC Press, 2005).

THE BIG PROBLEM with Proposition 77, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ballot measure to create a new system for drawing legislative and congressional boundaries, is that it’s much too fair.

Well, there are other flaws too, beginning with the fact that the initiative would require an immediate redistricting, to be completed too hastily using 2000 census data made musty by half a decade of frenetic growth in California.

Still, as a general idea, there is much to be said for transferring reapportionment duties over the long term from the Legislature and the governor to a less partisan forum, in this case a panel of three retired judges.


Drawing the lines of political battle is sometimes said to be more important than the actual voting. And it’s certainly true that California has a long history of shameless gerrymandering. Splitting apart cohesive cities, carving up ethnic enclaves or keeping them whole, leaping across waterways or wild lands to bundle together geographically distant clusters of the like-minded -- these are the demographic tools of imposed political dominance. Phil Burton, the legendary Democratic congressman, once concocted a district so bizarrely shaped that he referred to it as “my contribution to modern art.” It contained four separate sections, two of which were connected only by water and two by railroad yards.

More recently -- and less creatively -- both major parties colluded to safeguard their own after the 2000 census, redrawing boundaries to protect incumbents in the Legislature and Congress.

In most districts in California nowadays, it really doesn’t matter who you vote for in the general election; the registration figures are so lopsided in favor of one party or the other that the winner already has been effectively decided. So, yes, it makes sense in theory to put some distance between the people who write the electoral map and the people who run for office. Allowing working politicians to pick and choose the voters they represent, rather than the other way around, is a particularly blatant form of self-dealing.

Despite that, I’m going to vote against the proposition. In fact, I would vote against any nonpartisan redistricting plan that applies to congressional as well as legislative districts, as Proposition 77 does.

Here’s why. I’m a Democrat, and while I don’t think that the nonpartisan redistricting would have much of an effect on the legislative majorities in the California statehouse (where Democrats are likely to keep control of both the Assembly and the Senate), I do think a nonpartisan redistricting could reduce the number of Democrats in California’s congressional delegation, lessening the chances that Democrats will ever be able to regain control of the House of Representatives.

If enacted, Proposition 77 would also rob California’s dominant Democrats of the power to dictate a partisan gerrymander after the 2010 census. I want Democrats to retain that ability, no matter how unseemly it is to say so. It’s not that I don’t want to be fair. I do. But why should California Democrats be fair to Republicans when they have no guarantee that Republicans in the rest of the country will behave likewise? I will support a nonpartisan redistricting of Democrat-dominated California on the same day I can be assured of similar fairness in Republican states.


It’s true that GOP-leaning Ohio and Florida are considering initiatives to create non-legislative commissions, but they may not pass (Florida is merely in the signature-gathering stage), and even if they are enacted, that’s not good enough. Nonpartisan plans are most likely to be adopted through voter-approved initiatives -- legislatures rarely cede such power voluntarily -- and the initiative process does not even exist in many Southern, Republican-dominated states.

Most obvious among these is Texas, home to the nation’s second-largest congressional delegation. In 2003, Texas Republicans imposed a new redistricting scheme so brutally factional that Democrats briefly fled the state to deny the Legislature a quorum. Once enacted, the new map helped the GOP win additional congressional seats and maintain control of the House of Representatives.

I’m all for fairness, but I’m not so noble that I’m willing to lay down my Democratic sword here in California while Tom DeLay and his henchmen disembowel my soul-mates on the dusty plains of the Lone Star State, all the while swinging the federal government further and further to the right.

If we are going to shift redistricting duties from the glad-handing haggles of state capitols to the hushed proprieties of courtrooms, we are better off doing it all at once, through federal legislation or a constitutional amendment. If such a system were well designed, creating truly independent and evenhanded panels in every state, it would be worth adopting. But in the meantime, California’s dominant Democrats -- voters and politicians alike -- should cling to their partisan weapons.