November 08, 2005

Last-Minute Wavering

One of the hidden benefits of having a scarcely-read blog is that I can change my mind about an issue at noon on Election Day and not worry that I've somehow led readers astray.

Both Kash Mansori and Mickey Kaus knock down some of my earlier objections to Proposition 77, Schwarzenegger's plan for redistricting reform here in California. Both of them argue that the propositions "compact district" criteria wouldn't cram California Democrats into urban Bantustans, as I feared, because they're already crammed as tightly as possible into those districts. In fact, Kash argues that if the proposition passes, Democrats might even gain seats. I think this depends entirely on how that panel of retired judges draws the lines, and especially on how they divvy up Los Angeles, but yes, theoretically it's possible. More likely, though, Schwarzenegger wouldn't have done this if he didn't think it would knock off enough Democratic seats to keep them away from the 2/3 supermajority needed to pass a budget.

Kaus, for his part, notes that even if the redistricting only made a dozen seats newly competitive, that's still more than is the case now—the California legislature is slightly less competitive than the old Soviet Politburo. (Fortunately our Bolsheviks have term limits.) That's true, although it's not entirely clear why we should prefer that the fate of the legislature rest in the hands of "swing voters" in a dozen random districts. Injecting a little "competition" into a broken system can sometimes just leave you with a broken system prey to the odd bouts of randomness. Is that even a partial fix? Perhaps not.

More interestingly, Kaus notes that simply taking gerrymandering power out of the hands of party bosses would curb the power of those bosses, making for a less centralized legislature. Actually, I think that Schwarzenegger's redistricting reform could have the opposite effect, partly, as the most senior members of each party would start to hail from geographically safe, and ideologically extreme, districts—whoever represents San Francisco and Orange County, say; places that will never be competitive—and hence, the polarized leadership would become even more powerful, since they're the only ones with extra cash on hand and no need to worry about re-election. That's something to think about before adopting a "compact district" system nationwide. The Congresspeople who stick around the longest will inevitably end up hailing from places like Provo, UT and Berkeley, CA. (Of course, we already have something like this under the current system.)

Kaus also suggests that redistricting would create more compromise within the legislature, which could put an end California's insane government-by-initiative, something that has certainly crippled the state. That's an important angle, although I think the temptation for governors and wealthy interest groups to appeal directly to voters is too great, and initiatives will continue. Even "competitive" legislatures will fail to act now and again, and when that happens, it's initiative time. This won't end.

So bottom line. There are much better anti-gerrymandering reforms out there. Under Schwarzenegger's proposal, redrawn districts would have to be approved by voters, after million-dollar campaigns, and if a scheme was voted down, it would still go into effect anyway. That's ludicrous. The benefits to this redistricting reform are, I think, wildly oversold. Maybe the downsides are as well. In that case, the important question is this: Would passing Proposition 77 make other, better redistricting reforms more likely (because it sets the reform ball rolling) or less likely (because enough voters will be satiated with this "reform")? The answer to this question should decide one's vote. I will probably still say "no". But if the initiative fails, as seems likely from the polls, it's important to get another, better redistricting reform on the table.

Continue reading "Last-Minute Wavering"
-- Brad Plumer 1:57 PM || ||