WASHINGTON — Among the issues that California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will take to a special referendum election next fall is that of reapportionment. Specifically, the Gubernator wants to change the way California draws its district lines for representation in the state legislature and in the Congress. He wants to take the task of drawing districts out of the hands of the politicians who are elected by the very districting they create and give it to judges. The present system is just too cozy, Schwarzenegger believes, as it results in noncompetitive congressional seats that become Democratic or Republican when the districts are created and don’t change until the next redistricting.
In the last election in California, not a single seat changed in the Congress or the state legislature: All incumbents won. In all U.S. House races in 2004, only seven of 401 incumbents lost. Only 22 races were decided by a margin of less than 10 percentage points.
Schwarzenegger is not alone in his concern over the lack of competitive legislative seats. If you are a Republican who lives in Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman’s district, you may as well never vote. Your vote will be in vain, because Waxman enjoys a safe seat, winning by margins greater than 60 percent every election. The converse is true in Republican districts. And it is discouraging to voters as well as the governor. With data so robust and computing power so available, districts can be drawn with great numeric equality and just about any political persuasion one might want.
House Majority Leader Tom Delay guided the Texas Legislature to redraw the Texas House seats in 2003 in a way that led to the defeat of four incumbent Democrats last November. His new wrinkle on the old Gerrymandering plan was to do it in midstream. The Texas seats had already been brought into conformance to the 2000 census during the 2001 legislature. But the Republicans did not draw that reapportionment map — they did not take control of the Texas Legislature until 2003 — so Delay and his forces went right to work to get the extra seats.
It meant a great deal to the leader. Without the pickup of seven seats in Texas last year, the Republicans would have lost enough seats in the House of Representatives to make life tough for them.
I have looked at the reapportionment problem for quite a while and would have jumped in to support the Schwarzenegger proposal a couple of years ago. But the more I studied, the more difficult it became to become a reapportionment-reform missionary.
The problem is that taking the politics out of this political activity might not work. It was Elbridge Gerry, a 19th century Massachusetts political leader, who drew a state Senate seat to his party’s advantage in a shape that looked like a salamander thereby creating the term “Gerrymander” to define the creation of districts favoring one party, regardless of the geographic characteristics of the seat. His art form has been practiced ever since by leaders of both parties when they had control.
But today the lack of competitive congressional elections isn’t just the result of crafty map makers. There are two other big reasons:
* People tend to live among others much like themselves. The red states and the blue states are really clusters of people who live, work and think a lot alike. Most U.S. counties have become increasingly lopsided politically.
A Washington Post commissioned study found that, in 2004, in one of the closest elections in U.S. history nearly half of the country’s voters lived in communities where the winning presidential candidate had won by at least a 20 percent margin. Over the last seven presidential elections, the measurements of Republican and Democratic residential segregation increased by 50 percent.
* The power of incumbency is substantial — incumbents do not lose. They have several distinct advantages. Their service is newsworthy and they get constant exposure in the press (most of it good since they learned long ago the ropes of the PR business). They have access to much greater funding for their campaigns.
During the 1970s, winning congressional candidates spent 69 percent of the amount spent by all candidates in their races. From 1998 through 2002, however, the winning candidates accounted for an average of 82 percent of the total campaign spending.
If people cluster by political persuasion, how would you draw district lines that provided a real political mix? That is not easy. In California, the coastal area is all blue — Democratic by large margins. The central and inland areas are where the Republicans live. How would you connect enough of each to have truly competitive districts — make the map look like an American flag, with east-west stripes?
In most of America, the center cities are blue and the suburbs and rural areas are red. So there one would have to make pie shaped districts. And all of these devises would be as artificial as the current system, just different. Creating diverse districts would produce shapes that Elbridge Gerry would never have imagined.
So, sorry, Arnold. I will not be on board for your reapportionment referendum. But if you make a good action movie, give me a call.
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