On November 2, Californians will decide two propositions relating to the drawing of their elected representatives' districts. As the non-partisan Legislative Analyst's Office explained in its analysis of the measures, included in the Official Voter Information Guide,
In November 2008, voters passed Proposition 11, which created the Citizens Redistricting Commission to establish new district boundaries for the State Assembly, State Senate, and BOE [Board of Equalization] beginning after the 2010 census. To be established once every ten years, the commission will consist of 14 registered voters—5 Democrats, 5 Republicans, and 4 others—who apply for the position and are chosen according to specified rules.
When the commission sets district boundaries, it must meet the requirements of federal law and other requirements, such as not favoring or discriminating against political parties, incumbents, or political candidates. In addition, the commission is required, to the extent possible, to adopt district boundaries that:
- Maintain the geographic integrity of any city, county, neighborhood, and "community of interest" in a single district. (The commission is responsible for defining "communities of interest" for its redistricting activities.)
- Develop geographically compact districts.
- Place two Assembly districts together within one Senate district and place ten Senate districts together within one BOE district.
Proposition 20 would expand the Citizens Redistricting Commission's role to include the state's congressional districts as well. Proposition 27 would basically roll back Proposition 11 so that the drawing of State Assembly, State Senate, and Board of Equalization districts would once again fall under the Legislature's purview. State congressional districts would remain under the legislators' jurisdiction. In addition, Prop 27 would eliminate existing redistricting requirements regarding:
- Not favoring or discriminating against political parties, incumbents, or political candidates.
- Developing geographically compact districts.
- Placing two Assembly districts together within one Senate district and placing ten Senate districts together within one BOE district.
It shouldn't be surprising that there is much more gerrymandering, and, as a result, fewer competitive elections, when legislators are permitted to draw their own districts. As my colleague George Passantino noted in a 2008 Reason policy brief on Proposition 11, there have been a couple of periods over the past 40 years when California's redistricting was decided by the courts rather than by the Legislature. These included the period from 1973 to 1980 and the 1990s. Passantino found that there were significantly more competitive California State Assembly races, defined as those in which the winner won less than 53% of the vote, during the periods in which the courts led redistricting efforts:
When the court-imposed redistricting plan was used from 1973 to 1980, the average number of “competitive races” per election was 10.75. During the 1980s when another legislative-controlled redistricting process was implemented, the average number of competitive races dropped to 5.8 per general election. During the 1990s when another court-ordered redistricting effort guided elections, the average number of competitive races jumped to 10.8. Since 2002, the average number of competitive assembly races plummeted to 4.3.
Proposition 11 was not a panacea and will not put an end to attempts to rig elections in incumbents' favor as much as possible, but it was a worthy attempt to improve the system.
[An even better electoral reform would be the adoption of instant-runoff voting (IRV), also known as "preference voting" or "alternative vote." Under an IRV system, voters rank each of the candidates on the ballot: "1" for the voter's first choice, "2" for the second choice, and so on. If no candidate receives a majority of "first-place" votes, the candidate with the least amount of votes is eliminated. That candidate's votes are then redistributed according to voters' preferences (whatever their "second-place" votes were) and the totals are recalculated. Candidates continue to be eliminated one at a time and their votes reallocated until one candidate achieves a majority of the votes. In contrast to the open primary, or "top-two," approach, this would increase voter choice and participation because voters could choose from all parties with qualified candidates without worrying about the wasted vote or spoiler effects. See my article from earlier this year on IRV here.]
When not a single Assembly, State Senate, or congressional seat in the state changes hands, as happened in 2004, something is amiss. Legislators drawing their own districts simply have too great a conflict of interests. Foxes tend to be poor stewards of henhouses, so any impartiality or independent analysis that can be brought to redistricting decision making should be welcomed.
» See also this new Reason.tv interview with filmmaker Bill Mundell, executive producer of the documentary Gerrymandering (the video is a little over 9 minutes long).