Arnold vs. the Gerrymanders

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In California, like most states, there are few things more secure than an incumbent's Congressional seat. In the last election, only two of the state’s incumbents won with less than 60% of the vote; seven won more than 80%. The state balance of power remained the same: 33 Democrats and 20 Republicans once again make up California's Congressional delegation. None of this is surprising; California’s political boundaries, like most of the country’s congressional and state legislative district lines, were drawn to protect incumbents, putting a solid majority of party loyalists in each district. Nationwide, out of 435 seats up for election last fall, only about 30 were considered close races.

Now, Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to shake that up. He's not a big fan of the current districts, which have filled the state legislature with liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans who aren’t huge fans of Schwarzenegger’s moderate ideas. So the Gubernator plans to take a sledgehammer to the current system. In his state of the state address this week, he’ll propose taking control of redistricting away from the legislature and giving it to an appointed bipartisan panel of retired judges. The panel would immediately redraw districts for the 2006 election.

As with many of Schwarzenegger’s proposals, “Arniemandering” is causing a lot of political tongue-wagging. During his two years in office, the governor has scored some big accomplishments, passing a $15 billion bond measure to stave off bankruptcy while holding onto a 65% approval rating. But what’s more amazing — and troubling — is how he’s done it. Arnold has had little success working with the legislature, which is controlled by the Democrats and hopelessly gridlocked. So he’s accomplished things through sheer star power, constantly campaigning for his proposals and putting them onto the ballot when the legislature ignores them. The question is how long he can keep it up.

The idea behind Arniemandering is that a bipartisan panel would draw district lines based on geography and county lines, rather than trying to protect incumbents. Currently state legislators in most states use sophisticated computer software to slice up neighborhoods into all kinds of weirdly shaped districts in order to create a solid majority of party members in each area. (These oddly-shaped districts are called "Gerrymanders", a name a newspaper gave to a politically-motivated salamander-shaped district drawn by Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry in 1811.)

State legislators will often just draw lines just to protect incumbents. That’s what happened in California in 2000. Democrats didn’t see much chance of picking up additional seats, so they drew lines that gave them the state’s one new seat and protected the 32 seats they already controlled. Republican legislators agreed to the plan because it didn’t threaten any of their 20 seats. (The plan also protected the state legislators, but because of term limits, many of them are more interested in being able to run for safe Congressional seats in a few years.)

The result of these incumbency protection plans is that most Representatives face little danger of losing their seats. In fact, their biggest fear is losing to a more ideological candidate during their parties’ primaries. This has filled the House of Representatives with the most ideologically polarized group of congressmen in a century, according to a study of congressional voting patterns by Keith T Poole of the University of California, San Diego, and Howard Rosenthal of Princeton. It has also filled Sacramento with ideologically polarized state representatives and senators. Schwarzenegger hopes his proposed panel would create more swing districts, which might elect more moderates who would be sympathetic to the governor’s ideas.

Politicians in both parties are suspicious. Democrats are distrustful of anything Schwarzenegger proposes, and are fearful of losing control of the legislature. Some Republicans like the idea, but many don’t. After all, most of their voters are diehard conservatives, so why should they have to compete in swing districts? Schwarzenegger may also be using the idea, along with several other government reform proposals, as a threat — if lawmakers don’t approve his budget, he might go forward with redistricting. Just in case they block him, a citizens group led by Ted Costa, the godfather of conservative ballot propositions in the state, is already gathering petitions to put the idea on the ballot this fall.

The fight will be fascinating to watch. And the idea is a noble one — the current nature of redistricting has been a major factor in creating the nation’s current partisan divide. But California voters should be a bit skeptical. Is the governor looking after their interests or his own? If Arniemandering passes, who will pick the judges on the panel? Will the governor have to approve the plans the panel comes up with? It is near impossible to remove politics from the redistricting process. In fact, the Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that there is nothing wrong with drawing district lines for partisan purposes.

And it may not work out the way the governor hopes. Take Iowa, a state that has the least partisan redistricting process in the nation. The legislative services bureau draws up three possible plans and presents its first choice to the governor and legislature, which can only vote up or down on them. But the system has not created a state full of swing districts. Not a single incumbent congressman lost in last election. And even though the state split its vote 50-50 in the last two presidential elections, Iowa is represented by four Republicans and one Democrat. In the end, Arniemandering may do nothing more than change which politician gets to draw the lines.