Commentary

Reenergizing Democracy

By Patrick Basham
November 8, 2005

For months, truckloads of political money traveled along one-way highways from Capitol Hill to California and Ohio, respectively. What drives congressmen to raise millions of dollars for other, far-away politicians? The answer is naked self-interest. Today, California and Ohio voters have the opportunity to upset the national Incumbent Party’s electoral apple cart. And the incumbents, both Republican and Democrat, aren’t going down without a fight.

Unlike most democracies, we place the power to shape political districts in the hands of politicians. Our state legislatures have the power to draw political boundaries for state and congressional offices. Unfortunately, redistricting has evolved into the electoral instrument that best serves to protect and strengthen incumbency advantage thanks to sophisticated gerrymandering — the redrawing of legislative districts for political advantage.

Grassroots movements in California and Ohio are attempting to change this situation to make both state and congressional elections more competitive. However, from coast to coast, most politicians are unwilling to contemplate real reform. Chellie Pingree, president of Common Cause, reminds us that, “Incumbent politicians don’t want to change the system no matter where they are.”

That’s why both the Ohio and California anti-reform campaigns have drawn millions of dollars in out-of-state donations. The Democratic Party’s congressional leadership, for example, asked its House members to each raise $100,000 to defeat the California measure.

California’s Proposition 77 proposes a constitutional amendment to take control of redistricting away from the legislature and to give it to an independent panel of three retired judges. Is the need for reform really that great? Yes, it is. Consider the fact that last November not one of the 53 seats in California’s congressional delegation, and not one of the state’s 100 legislative seats, switched from Republican to Democrat or vice-versa.

As the highly respected Economist magazine concluded this week, Gov. Schwarzenegger’s initiative “may sound like an arcane bit of political procedure, but it could reenergize Californian democracy.”

The measure to reform redistricting is Issue 4 on today’s Ohio ballot. In Ohio, last year’s congressional elections saw not a single competitive race. As in California, the goal is to remove political influence from the mechanics of the electoral process.

Redistricting makes strange political bedfellows. In California, Republicans led the reform campaign; opposition came from Democrats, who control the state legislature, and their labor union funders. By contrast, in Ohio, the Democrats and the unions pushed the reform measure, while Republicans, who dominate the state legislature, opposed it. No prominent Ohio Republican endorsed the reform measure while many Republican lawmakers raised money for the No campaign.

If these measures pass, independent panels will take control of the redistricting process. In California, an independent panel of three retired judges will draw the new maps. In Ohio, two judges will appoint a commission of five citizens who will effectively control redistricting.

Can such reforms work? There are no easy solutions to the redistricting mess. Nevertheless, removing politicians’ control over redistricting can help to lessen the problem. The judge-based solution has recent history on its side. In 1991, a political impasse was reached in California after Republican Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed the Democratic-controlled legislature’s redistricting plan. The California Supreme Court appointed a panel of judges to do the job instead of the politicians.

Revealingly, the number of competitive state legislative races rose by 50 percent. It is estimated that, if enacted, Proposition 77 will produce 10 competitive congressional seats as well as 15 competitive state Senate and Assembly seats.

The sentiment that there must be a better way of redistricting explains the grassroots reform movement that is alive and well in 16 states. Increasingly, Americans are learning that neither of the major parties views competition as a good thing. Yet, most people agree that rational redistricting should transcend partisan politics.

Today, Californians and Ohioans may send a critical message to their elected representatives and to politicians nationwide. They may reclaim a semblance of control over the electoral process by taking control away from the Incumbent Party of Republican and Democratic elected officials. No wonder those checks, post-marked Capitol Hill, never stopped coming.

Patrick Basham is senior fellow in the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute.