For redistricting, 10th time may be a charm

TONY QUINN is editor of the California Target Book, a nonpartisan analysis of legislative and congressional elections.

NINE TIMES California voters have been asked to reform the way the state draws its legislative and congressional districts, and nine times they have said no. But Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger seems convinced that the 10th time will be the charm.

It’s a tough sell, to be sure. Voters don’t seem to realize that there’s a connection between how a district is drawn and who gets elected in it. Politicians get it — and they use their power to redraw political lines to choose their voters and keep their seats.

But a look at the history of the nine failed attempts at reform shows why Schwarzenegger could succeed this time.

In 1930, 1948, 1960 and 1962, organized labor qualified initiatives to overturn rural control of the state Senate. That voters in increasingly urban California favored allowing cow counties to control the upper house of the Legislature illustrates Schwarzenegger’s challenge: how to overcome voters’ institutional conservatism? They liked the political balance of an urban-based lower house pitted against an upper one controlled by rural interests because they believed it limited the concentration of power in the hands of an urban majority. This system lasted until the California Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional in the 1960s.

No sooner had the rural factor in apportionment died than a more appealing one emerged: the ability to gerrymander districts for partisan advantage. Political historians mark the 1951 California redistricting, a Republican plan, as the first partisan map. But Democrats soon mastered the game and, in 1981, enacted one of the most partisan gerrymanders in California history.

Republicans filed a referendum to kill that plan — and voters rejected it. Then the GOP came up with what it considered a sure-fire way to stop future Democratic gerrymandering: take the power to draw district lines away from the Legislature and give it to a panel of retired judges. In one form or another, Republicans took this idea to the voters four times — in 1982, 1984 and with competing proposals in 1990 — and lost every time.

The lessons from this history of reform attempts is clear: Voters are reluctant to choose sides in a partisan squabble that involves an issue they don’t completely understand and can see no personal advantage in deciding.

Schwarzenegger waded into the redistricting wars in 2005, qualifying an initiative that would have given a group of retired judges the power to redraw districts immediately. The proposal was the most politically unrealistic of all the reform proposals because it looked like a flagrant power grab, a way for the governor to get around what was then a hostile Democratic Legislature. Voters rejected it overwhelmingly.

Significantly, the 10th reapportionment reform plan involves no reach for political advantage. Schwarzenegger has endorsed a proposal developed by a nonpartisan group under the auspices of the Voices of Reform project sponsored by the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. It calls for the creation of a citizens commission whose members would be randomly selected by the state Fair Political Practices Commission from a pool created by county election officials. The citizens group would apply strict criteria — such as respecting city and county boundaries — in redrawing district lines. No political data would be used.

A variety of reapportionment-reform groups, led by Common Cause, endorsed this approach before Schwarzenegger added his support. Their interest stemmed from the fact that the last two elections did not alter the GOP-Democratic balance in the Legislature, and only one congressional district changed parties. These groups argue that the voters’ ability to choose their legislators is compromised if districts are drawn in a way that makes their votes irrelevant, as was evident in the no-change elections in November

This answers one question never explicitly addressed in the previous nine reform efforts: How would the average voter benefit from redistricting reform?

Then there’s the politics of winning passage. Unlike in 2005, the GOP-power-grab argument won’t easily stick to Schwarzenegger because, this time, the governor can’t run for the office again and will be termed-out when the reform would govern the next scheduled redistricting (2011). Besides, he and Democrats are getting along famously these days.

But to pass the reform measure, the governor desperately needs a real partner on the Democratic side. He can point to some out-of-office Democrats who back reform, but neither Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata nor Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez has shown any interest in changing the way redistricting is done because the more partisan members of their caucuses fear that reform would result in fewer Democratic officeholders in California.

That’s why Schwarzenegger should turn for support to the most powerful Democrat in California and in the United States, incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. But why would Pelosi risk Democratic clout in California in the name of more competitive elections?

Because many states gerrymandered their political maps, the number of seats — at least 10, according to some estimates — that Democrats should have won in the House this year was depressed. In California, the bipartisan legislative and congressional reapportionment plan enacted in 2001 has worked against the Democrats because it has guaranteed Republicans a certain number of seats despite the fact that the state has become ever more Democratic. Under the pre-2001 redistricting plan, the million-vote presidential landslide for Al Gore in California in 2000 netted Democrats four new congressional seats. Under the current political map, the million-vote margin for presidential candidate John Kerry in 2004 netted Democrats zero seats.

Some results in the 2006 midterm elections might encourage Pelosi to add her voice to calls for reforming redistricting. Half the Republican congressional delegation of four in Iowa, where the Legislature does not draw political lines, were defeated. In Arizona, where politicians lack redistricting powers, two of the six Republican seats went Democratic. In California, by contrast, only one of 20 congressional Republicans — Rep. Richard Pombo of Tracy — lost, and that was because he’d been tainted by corruption charges.

For 12 years, congressional Republicans have used redistricting to stay in power. In the South, they manipulated the Voting Rights Act to dilute the effect of minority voters. Elsewhere, they gerrymandered states to create a firewall against a year like 2006, which, though bad, could have been worse. If Pelosi wants to shatter this system, California is the place to start.

Even if Democratic politicians stay clear of redistricting reform, their interest groups have some reason to support it. The real power in Sacramento is not Democratic legislators, most of whom would be termed-out by the 2011 redistricting, but their permanent interest groups — teachers, public employees and organized labor, among them. Obviously, these constituents like the current system that assures a Democratic-controlled Legislature. But Democrats occupying safe seats can sometimes defy an interest group. Although it sounds counterintuitive, fewer safe seats could actually increase labor’s clout because Democratic incumbents would have to be more dependent on unions to win reelection.

But chances are that Schwarzenegger will have to go the initiative route with redistricting and face at least some Democratic opposition, which would put voters where they were in the nine previous attempts at reform: choosing sides between squabbling politicians. And we know the result.

To succeed, then, the governor will have to take the politics out of redistricting reform by convincing voters that the proposal is truly nonpartisan and that competitive elections are something voters should care about. That won’t be easy. But the fact that a true citizens commission would do the drawing certainly gives the proposal a nonpartisan aura. And Schwarzenegger, fresh off a big reelection victory, has the motivation to invest his political capital in restoring democracy in California — and build his legacy in the process.