Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger visited Washington this week in part to solicit support for his proposal to change the way California draws its legislative districts. His efforts are commendable, and his plan won an endorsement from Common Cause, the government watchdog group. But his plan is unlikely to achieve his goals because it does not account for the realities of California's demographic landscape.
Governor Schwarzenegger and others are proposing that redistricting be taken out of the hands of the incumbents and given to an independent body, like a panel of impartial retired judges. Yet several states already use independent commissions, and the results are not encouraging.
For instance, in Arizona, where an independent panel delineates districts, all eight Congressional incumbents won re-election last year with an average margin of victory of 34 percent. In the State Senate, none of the 30 seats were competitive; in fact, more than half of the seats were uncontested by one of the two major parties (even though Arizona has public financing of elections, which should encourage more candidates). Other states that use independent or bipartisan redistricting commissions of one kind or another, like Iowa, New Jersey and Washington, also had mostly noncompetitive Congressional elections in 2004.
The problem is not who draws the legislative lines - it's where people live. Take a look at a map of California that shows which areas voted for John Kerry and which voted for President Bush. It looks the same as the map for Al Gore and Mr. Bush four years earlier. It will look much the same for the Republican and Democratic candidates in 2008.
As they have in many states, regional partisan leanings in California have become entrenched over the past 20 years, with the heavily populated coastal areas and cities dominated by Democrats and the more sparsely populated interior dominated by Republicans. It's a statewide version of the national political map.
Not that there aren't plenty of Democrats living in mostly Republican areas (and vice versa) - as well as independents and third-party supporters all over. It's just that they are "orphaned voters" whose candidates almost never win. But it's not because of redistricting. It's because regional partisan demographics are exaggerated by the method by which California elects its representatives - the single-seat-district, winner-take-all electoral system.
The only way to make districts more competitive would be to use the Democratic urban areas as the hubs of a wheel, and draw the districts as spokes radiating outward from the urban hub into the more Republican interior. In Southern California, there would need to be narrow districts beginning in downtown Los Angeles and extending east to Riverside and San Bernardino Counties. In the Bay Area, the districts would begin in San Francisco and extend across the bay into Contra Costa County. Some of them might be narrow corridors extending from the Pacific Ocean to the Nevada or Arizona borders.
These new districts would be competitive, but they would also look ridiculous. Moreover, they would probably run afoul of the federal Voting Rights Act, which is intended to ensure minority representation. There is a trade-off between creating more competitive districts and giving minority communities a fair chance of electing representatives.
So Governor Schwarzenegger's plan, while well intentioned, is bound to fail. The old ways of thinking about redistricting and its impact no longer apply in California - nor in many other states. Shifting demographics have outstripped the abilities of the mapmakers to encourage competitiveness.
A nonpartisan redistricting commission may make a few more legislative seats more competitive. And it certainly would have the salutary effect of changing the public perception that incumbents have a hand in rigging their own district lines. But such tinkering is not likely to change much else. It will not "blow up the boxes" of state government, as Mr. Schwarzenegger has said he wishes to do.
It may well be that California's electoral system, like the rest of America's, has reached its endgame. Our current politics are as good as they are going to be as long as we continue to use an antiquated method that is so ill suited for the new California and its wide range of attitudes, demographics and geographic regions.
We can't change where people choose to live, but we can begin using some type of proportional representation system. For example, California could use a system like that in Peoria, Ill., for municipal elections. Instead of electing 40 state senators from 40 districts, voters in 10 districts could elect four senators each. Any candidate who won at least a quarter of the vote would earn a seat. These districts would be far more likely to be bipartisan, even electing some urban Republicans and rural Democrats.
That's the path that the governor should pursue, if he is serious about reforming his state's politics. And it's a path the rest of the nation's governors should examine as well.
Steven Hill, a fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author of "Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner-Take-All Politics."
© 2005 New York Times, Co.