As this year’s gruesome budget stalemate dragged on through the summer, Governor Schwarzenegger summed up his frustration this way:
“Republicans must step out of their ideological corner on the right and Democrats must step out of their ideological corner on the left. We must meet in the middle. We must compromise so that we can move on with vital businesses besides the budget such as the water, court and prison crises that we’re in.”
Weeks later, as he reluctantly prepared to sign a budget that nobody likes, he remarked, “We have a problem here with our system…that compromise is being punished, and getting stuck in your ideological corner is being rewarded.”
The intense partisanship that the Governor complains about stems directly from non-competitive legislative districts. These districts are so heavily tilted toward one party or the other that they promote the election of strongly partisan representatives. Legislators from such districts tend to avoid working with the other party because it can leave them vulnerable to charges of party disloyalty in their home district primaries. The result is that legislators are predisposed toward obstinacy and against compromise.
Our current districts are fantastically contorted gerry¬manders designed to maximize the number of safe Democratic and, consequently, also safe Republican districts. Consider, for example, the psychedelic, fractal-patterned State Senate districts 16 and 18. These districts’ interlocking spiral arms gently tease apart the Democratic and Republican neighborhoods of Bakersfield, Visalia, and other San Joaquin Valley cities. Even though the districts cover the same part of the state, District 16 has a 45,000-voter Democratic advantage and District 18 a 60,000-voter Republican advantage. (Each district has roughly 300,000 registered voters.)
The November general election means nothing in such districts. The majority-party candidate is assured of victory. Instead, what’s important is the primary contest. And how do you win a partisan primary? By appealing to activist and loyalist elements within your party–by retreating to your “ideological corner,” to use Arnold’s phrase. So candidates in primaries play up their party credentials, and loudly proclaim they will never compromise core party values like taxes or the environment. Typically, moderates lose these primaries to hardliners. The nominees are then rubber-stamped in November, even if there’s significant independent and crossover vote for moderate minority-party nominees, because the district registration is so heavily tilted. The result is a Legislature (and Congress) full of extreme partisans, responsive only to their own parties, with no incentive to compromise or back down from obstructionist tactics.
The solution is to fix the districts, replacing the current, distended, single-party districts with more compact districts that reflect the true political diversity of each area. These will encourage legislators to be responsive to all constituents, since they’ll presumably need at least some independent and crossover support to win November general elections.
Under current law, however, the state Legislature draws its own districts every ten years. Considering their political survival is at stake, it would be a miracle if legislators didn’t take the opportunity to rig the districts to make their seats safe. So, to end single-party districts—to end the polarization and acrimony—we must take redistricting out of the Legislature’s hands. It’s as simple as that.
Prop 11 will give a commission of fourteen citizens the task of drawing State Senate, Assembly and Board of Equalization districts. The commission would comprise five Democrats, five Republicans, and four voters of neither party. Any plan would have to be approved by a majority of commissioners from all three groups.
The process to select commissioners seems to have been inspired by reality television. It goes like this: After each 10-year census, any registered voter in the state can submit the equivalent of an audition tape in hopes of being selected as a commissioner. In all likelihood thousands will apply; I certainly intend to. The producer (actually the State Auditor) weeds out any applicants who are political insiders, such as legislative staff, major political contributors or lobbyists, or their immediate families. The survivors are then presented to a panel of mean-spirited judges named Simon, Paula and Randy (actually three independent auditors), who will evaluate the applicants’ “analytical skills, ability to be impartial and appreciation for California’s diverse demographics and geography.” Don’t ask me how they will measure these. Maybe they’ll ask for an interpretive dance.
Anyway, Simon, Paula and Randy choose three tribes of survivors: twenty Democrats, twenty Republicans, and twenty who belong to neither major party. Now the four leaders of the State Senate and Assembly arrive and, pretending to be Donald Trump, gleefully fire two survivors apiece from each tribe, leaving twelve in each. At this point the producer returns and presents long-stemmed roses to three Democrats, three Republicans, and two Neithers, chosen randomly from each tribe. These eight become the first Commissioners. They proceed to vote off the island all but two of the survivors in each tribe. Those six join the original eight to form the Mighty Fourteen. Your Redistricting Commission. Five Democrats, five Republicans, four None-of-the-above. All of ’em tough as nails. Let’s hear it for them!
The Commission then goes on a statewide Victory Tour, holding public hearings, trashing hotel suites, and developing district maps for State Senate, Assembly, and Board of Equalization. I expect sellouts everywhere.
Districts created under Prop 11 must conform to city and county boundaries as much as possible. This is sensible, not because cities are compact—they’re not, as a map of Los Angeles, with its narrow corridor to San Pedro, or San Diego, with its channel through the Bay to the enclave of San Ysidro, will prove—but because they are permanent communities with shared infrastructure, institutions and interests. A further provision prevents districts from bypassing contiguous areas of population in order to incorporate more distant areas. This will prevent the pseudopodia we see in today’s districts that reach across mountains and deserts to distant pockets of sympathetic voters.
Note that Prop 11 does not require districts to be competitive. There’s nothing in the measure that suggests Democratic and Republican registration should be comparable in any district. After all, to do that would require gerrymanders every bit as misshapen as those we have today. For example, to be competitive, a district starting in San Francisco would have to stretch far and wide to find enough Republicans to balance its Democrats, and a district starting in the state’s northeast corner would have to reach hundreds of miles to find Democrats to balance its Republicans. Prop 11 requires compactness, not competitiveness.
Because of this, I don’t expect Prop 11 to cause drastic changes to the make-up of the Legislature. The Bay Area will continue to send liberals to Sacramento, and the Inland Empire will send conservatives. Instead, in a few districts in areas that aren’t solidly liberal or conservative, Prop 11 will enable moderate candidates to win seats by courting the cross-over and independent voters that aren’t enough in today’s single-party districts. These moderates can form a swing block in the Legislature, pursued by both sides of the aisle. With a little luck, that would lead to concessions from the polarized wing of each party, and from there to dialog, courtesy, compromise, heightened perspective, and all the other good behaviors that make governing bodies functional. To me, that’s the promise of Prop 11.
Pete Rates the Propositions is non-partisan and unaffiliated with any candidate or organization. Pete remains obstinately undoctrinaire, considering each ballot proposition on its merits. He is proud to have offended (and persuaded) voters of all political stripes. This originally appeared on Pete Rates the Propositions and is republished with the permission of the author.