Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Legislative Redistricting: Why You Should Vote "YES" on Proposition 77

In 1812, Jeffersonian Republicans forced through the Massachusetts legislature a bill rearranging district lines to assure them an advantage in the upcoming senatorial elections. Although Governor Elbridge Gerry had only reluctantly signed the law, a Federalist editor is said to have exclaimed upon seeing the new district lines, "Salamander! Call it a Gerrymander." The cartoon-map at left first appeared in the Boston Gazette for March 26, 1812.

If you are undecided about Proposition 77, this post is for you. Proposition 77 is Governor Schwarzenegger's redistricting initiative, directed at Calfiornia's own gerrymandered setup. Polls are uncertain about this Proposition, but it appears that at least 10% of voters have not made up their minds. If you're in that group, consider the following, which revisits some of what I wrote in my earlier post on the same subject:

What would Proposition 77 do, anyway? Here's the general question on the ballot:

Should the California Constitution be amended to change the process of
redistricting California's State Senate, State Assembly, Congressional and Board
of Equalization districts, transferring the implementation of redistricting from
the Legislature to a panel of three retired judges, selected by legislative

You've probably seen a television ad by the anti-Prop 77 forces showing three old white men in judicial robes, winking at the camera. The ad suggests that Proposition 77 would turn decisions on legislative districts over to the "unaccountable, unelected" judges, who presumably can't be trusted to do what's right.

Guess what? The ad is astonishingly dishonest. Here's what Proposition 77 would do:

1. Voters will be able to vote on the new redistricting plan. That gives the people of California more power and the special interests less.

2. To ensure district lines that are competitive and fair, a panel of retired judges—selected through a bipartisan process with no political agenda—will draw new district lines according to strict guidelines.

3. Voters then may approve or reject the lines. That puts us, Californians, in charge of our elections.

4. Neighborhoods and communities will matter again. Incumbents will no longer be able to draw their own districts, splitting up towns and neighborhoods in an effort to guarantee their own re-election.

You can read all about the proposition here, in the Official Voter Information Guide published by the Secretary of State.

So why all the fuss about this measure? It's all about political power and the entrenched interests protecting their positions. Earlier this year the California Supreme Court rejected a court challenge to Proposition 77, brought by the Democratic Party. The Court ruled that Proposition 77 may remain on the ballot. The Wall Street Journal comments here.

You might ask yourself: Why would the Democrats take a ballot initiative all the way to the State Supreme Court, in a desperate effort to keep voters from deciding the issue? Because the Proposition 77 threatens their power base. For the same reason, most of the Republican establishment is either lukewarm or outright opposed to the measure. Why? The disappointing truth is exposed in this piece by syndicated columnist Jill Stewart, who is in favor of the initiative. She paints a picture that any honest observer of the California Legislature will recognize immediately:

Most people imagine that when they vote, they do so in a real community based largely on geography -- a 'voting district.' That was true once. But now, the legislature uses computer programs to painstakingly divide voters by party -- not community. Without their knowledge, Republican and Democrat are separated into bizarrely shaped 'districts' so overpopulated with one party that our two-party system is effectively quashed. Think 'The Matrix.' You're force-fed to support a creepy apparatus that wants to control your world. You don't even know it. California voters don't know they're corralled in fake 'districts' and force-fed pre-selected party hacks. The insiders who do know -- the media, the think tanks, the supposed 'civic' groups -- prefer to keep the debate among insiders only. It's such trouble to involve the public.

As someone who has worked on a number of legislative matters in the California Legislature, I can verify that it is a zoo up there in Sacramento. For one thing, the districts are drawn so that seats never change hands. In Californa, if you want to be in the Legislature, whether you're a Republican or a Democrat all you need to do is get nominated, and then you're in your seat for as long as term limits allow. But that's not all. The political makeup of each district is such that generally, only very liberal or very conservative candidates can be elected. So we have a permanent majority of hard-core liberal Democrats doing battle with a permanent minority of hard-core conservative Republicans. Is it any wonder that such ridiculous policy emanates from that place?

Jill Stewart follows up with a piece in today's New York Times:

Honest observers on the left and right have long complained that California's voting district map is a masterwork of cynicism that assures victories for incumbents as well as party hacks seeking open seats. The fix is so complete that in 2004 not one of the 173 state legislative and Congressional seats being contested in California changed party hands. Robert Stern, president of the liberal-leaning Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, told me that California's elections are "less democratic than the Soviet Politburo."

The resulting process is ugly. As a general rule, in our legislature policy is not made, it is brokered. Here's how it works: Lobbyists for interest groups who have a stake in an issue write the bills. Often the lobbyists and their clients agree on the legislation, then take the product to a legislative sponsor. Once the sponsor is certain that the bill, as written, has the support of the right interest groups (meaning the ones that donate substantially to him or her) , Legislative Counsel polishes the language, the bill is introduced, and it is voted into law. Depressing, but true.

The old saw is that "lovers of law and sausage should never know how either one is made." True enough. But in California we'd like to at least have something to say about who is making them. Prop 77 would at least give us a chance.

Vote YES on 77!


Blogger Bill Rice said...

Here Here! Regardless of who gains and who loses from the political fallout of Prop 77 passing (which I understand at this point looks unlikely), the fact that we have no competitive races in any seat in California when most of the state is upset about our political situation points to how corrupt the current system is!

Hopefully we will have good news after election day and representative democracy will be restored to California.

Kind regards,

Bill Rice 

Posted by Bill Rice

Monday, November 07, 2005 10:17:00 PM  

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