Thursday, December 7, 2006
“In the first six years of the 21st century, there have been 300 legislative elections in the state. In 297 of those elections, the political party of the incumbent maintained control. Most of the men and women who took office after those elections are fair, honest and hard-working. But it defies credulity to believe that our state’s voters would reward their elected representatives with a success rate of 99 percent.”
That’s from an op-ed piece in last Sunday’s Sacramento Bee, co-written by two men who have formed an unlikely alliance: Fred Keeley, our former state Assemblyman, a staunch Democrat, and Dan Schnur, a powerful California-based Republican strategist.
These two longtime foes have put aside their differences to work together as co-chairs of a coalition called Voices of Reform. They are pushing for a fundamental change in state politics—an overhaul of the way legislative districts are drawn.
Here’s how it works now: The map that sets the shape of legislative districts is redrawn every 10 years, following the US Census; the California Constitution gives the task of drawing that map to state Senators and Assembly members. These lawmakers, by studying geographic voting patterns, make certain that the redistricting process favors their own reelection, or that of members of their political party. They are quite good at it, as the numbers quoted above attest.
Keeley and Schnur say this creates a system that is clearly unfair: “Every member of this coalition agrees there is an inherent conflict of interest that results from legislators directly determining the shape of their own districts.”
For anyone who’s been paying attention to Sacramento politics for the past 20 years, that fact is well understood. Everybody knows that, as the saying goes, “the fix is in.” Nobody likes it—except the lawmakers who benefit from it. And they’re the ones with the power to keep this practice in place.
Arnold Schwarzenegger has been talking about this issue since his first campaign for governor. Last year, a redistricting plan was one of the four initiatives that made up his dramatic “reform” package, which was roundly rejected by voters.
On Tuesday, Schwarzenegger launched a new redistricting plan. Based largely on the work of Voices of Reform, this proposal contains none of the troubling elements that prevented many progressive Californians (including the Weekly’s editorial board) from supporting last year’s initiative.
Keeley and Schnur stood alongside the governor when he announced the plan, as did Ned Wigglesworth, who has been working on the issue for many years with the universally respected good-government group Common Cause.
“This proposal would return meaningful choice to the people of California,” Wigglesworth told me following the announcement. “We are committed to working with the governor. And we are committed to working with the legislature.”
As he said those words he sounded less that hopeful.
No legislative leaders from either political party showed up at the press conference.
Here in Monterey County, we have a distinct reason to demand reform. In the last redistricting process, in 2001, the legislature’s leadership cooked up a scheme that eliminated our representation in the state Senate. In a classic case of gerrymandering, the county was cut in half and placed in two new districts; one stretches south to Santa Maria and the other east to Merced. The composition of those districts makes it unlikely that any candidate from Monterey County will ever hold either seat.
The Central Coast was drawn out of power for arcane and petty political reasons. An immediate consequence was that then-Assemblyman Fred Keeley, a likely shoo-in for the old Senate District 15 seat, was screwed. On the new map, his home was put into a district where he was an unknown. That was not an accident. (The story is too complex to tell here, but links to articles that document the whole ugly deal can be found in this column at mcweekly.com.)
The harm caused by California’s redistricting system goes far beyond Monterey County. With every voting district in the state rigged to guarantee victory to one party or the other, politicians have no reason to compromise. This creates a polarized government, unable to confront the state’s biggest problems.
As Wigglesworth sees it, the damage goes even deeper.
“A vast number of Californians feel disenfranchised, so they don’t vote,” he says. “They know the politicians are gaming the system. If you can’t throw the bums out when they don’t represent your interests, you don’t have democracy.
“The current legislature doesn’t reflect the true makeup of California—the center goes largely unrepresented. This proposal is good, but not because it will result in more moderates in Sacramento. It’s good because more people will feel represented.”