Policy Today magazine cover
September 8, 2006

Critics say that redistricting comes down to power politics--proponents argue that it promises better schools, less crowded freeways and improved healthcare.  California voters will render their verdict on November 8.

State Senators Don Perata, Alan Lowenthal, and their colleagues connect the dots between gerrymandering, incumbency and fixing what may ultimately be the problem.

"Nobody gets up in the morning and says, 'my life would be so much better if the 9th Senate District went another four blocks that way,'" says California Senate President pro Tem, Don Perata.  But Golden State residents do start the day on crowded freeways, send their kids to under-funded schools, and worry about a tenuous economy and the high cost of healthcare. 

"In our community people are concerned with education, crime or public safety, and jobs," says Ken Shockley, Fresno City Public Affairs Officer.  John Beckman, the Mayor of Lodi adds, "in my community, I'd say we're very concerned with the economy, better paying jobs, and crime." 

"Redistricting" does not appear on any of these lists.  So, how does a special election on redistricting reform fit into the greater scheme of voter concerns?

Accountability and voter frustration

"There's a growing belief that legislatures-federal, state and even local-can't solve the problems that people are confronting," suggests California State Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach).

"It's the chicken and the egg question: I believe a lot of voter apathy and cynicism is the result of a failure of our representative democracy," asserts California Assemblyman Keith Richman (R-Northridge). "When people don’t trust their government to address the issues that their states and communities face, then cynicism and apathy is to be expected."

Richman adds, "redistricting will be a step toward bringing to Sacramento more legislators who are going to work to solve problems rather than continue the partisan gridlock and dysfunction," says Richman.

Lowenthal, whose 1988 race for the 54th district assembly seat was the closest election in the state, argues that competitive districts do indeed translate to a more responsive and accountable representative. That didn't mean I always had to agree with the public, but I had to spend significant time working out relationships with people within my district, so that if I was to disagree with them I could effectively communicate why I was doing so."

"Independent redistricting can defeat the horse-trading that goes on when district lines are drawn behind closed doors," suggests Sen. Lowenthal. And by opening the process, creating district boundaries based on the needs of the communities they comprise rather than the representatives that determine them, independent redistricting advocates suggest the voting public will recapture some lost influence. "You're never going to eliminate politicians being beholden to someone, but what you want to do is spread out that loyalty, rather than just to those contributing to campaigns or those that can advance their career."

Redistricting reform seeks to reverse low voter turnout and increase public interest in the political process by providing voters with the means to affect real change, whether through policy or by replacing underperforming incumbents.

Does anyone care?

The Governor and Prop 77 supporters point out that there have been several legislative proposals aimed at establishing an independent commission to draw district lines.  But, they have all failed to garner even moderate support in the state legislature. "We've really never seen legislatures in this country voluntarily give up power," explains Lowenthal, who in December 2004 introduced independent redistricting proposal SCA 3.

Likewise, Richman remains dubious about the prospect of an independent redistricting measure making its way through the legislature, having seen his proposal, co-authored by a bipartisan group of five Democrats and five Republicans, fail to gain even a second in committee after being introduced last February.

So, if redistricting is the elixir for a disenchanted electorate, referendum and initiative seem to be the only way for Californians to go. The generally agreed upon ideal for a redistricting plan is the establishment of compact, contiguous districts that respect communities of interest, ensure minority representation, encourage partisan fairness and promote competitive elections.

Something is wrong, but what?

Prop 77 friends-and-foes-alike all agree that something is wrong.  But what?  Is the original bogeyman, "the protected incumbent" solely to blame for all of the evils laid at his or her doorstep:  voter apathy and frustration, partisan gridlock, legislators' preoccupation with minor at the expense of major issues, lack of accountability-and more?  Maybe. The Mayor of Lodi may be onto something though, when he says, "they keep taking all of our money."

Congress recently passed a $286 billion highway bill.  The California Congressional delegation did not return home empty-handed, but at the expense of approving Alaskan Don Young's "bridges to nowhere":  "a $231 million span that connects a rain-soaked town of 7,845 people to an island that has about 50 residents and the area's airport; and, another two mile bridge that will tie Anchorage to a port that has a single regular tenant and almost no homes or businesses. It would cost up to $2 billion."  (New York Times)

California receives about $0.90 on the dollar while Alaska is paid $7 for every dollar sent to the Treasury. That's $6.10 that doesn't go to needed roads, schools or hospitals--or levees--not only in California, but elsewhere across the nation.

When politicians are first elected, they are heroes not only to themselves but to their constituents and in most cases, rightly so. Then something changes when they arrive in Sacramento or Washington and return as an incumbent. All the "to get along, go along" seems to have a cost.

Next issue:  "What happens when Mr. (Ms.) Smith goes to Washington?"