Gerrymandering the drawing of district lines to favor a particular party, or incumbents in general allows lawmakers to choose their voters, rather than the other way around. Almost all incumbents routinely win re-election and form a political elite that California's Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger says has built "a fortress to keep the politicians in and the people out." In the next few days, the governor will have to decide if he will back what may be the last chance to substantially reform redistricting in California before the 2010 census.
The need is certainly there. In California, lawmakers in both parties have mapped out the state for their own benefit with the precision of a plastic surgeon. Of the 153 seats theoretically up for grabs last November 80 in the state Assembly, 20 in the Senate and 53 in the U.S. Congress only one changed parties. In 2004, not a single one did.
It was after that election that Mr. Schwarzenegger proposed a measure to have districts drawn by a commission made up of former judges, whose work would be approved by the voters. He put it on a 2005 special election ballot as part of his "Reform California" agenda. But he ran an unfocused campaign that was outmatched by his public employee union opponents, and all of his ideas were defeated.
But in order to ensure defeat of redistricting reform, both Senate leader Don Perate and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez felt compelled to pledge that they would move their own proposal to create fair districts. "Our commitment . . . is to fashion a bipartisan solution in a thoughtful way and put it on the ballot next year," Mr. Perata told the Los Angeles Times back in 2005.
Both men quickly lost their zeal once the redistricting measure lost. Last month the Legislature adjourned for the second straight year without acting on redistricting reform. The governor admitted that Mr. Perada hadn't shown "much interest" in the subject. Los Angeles Times columnist George Skelton sheepishly acknowledged he should never have believed legislative leaders would limit their own power to draw districts. "Was I ever gullible," he lamented.
Instead, both legislative leaders have made a top priority of weakening the state's 17-year-old term limits law. Their brainchild, Proposition 93, will appear on the statewide ballot next February, along with the presidential primary. It is a convoluted measure crafted in legislative back rooms. Backers sell it as a strengthening of limits on legislative tenure, but in reality it would allow Messrs. Perata and Nunez and most of their colleagues to extend their time in office. Both men solemnly said they planned to pair term limits with redistricting reform: "We can't put one on the ballot without the other," Mr. Nunez told reporters in 2006. So much for that.
All of this presents Mr. Schwarzenegger with a dilemma. On the one hand, he has said he would refuse to support any weakening of term limits unless it's accompanied by a measure stripping legislators of the power to draw their own districts. But on the other hand, he has grown comfortable with the personal relationships he has built with existing legislators. "He doesn't like dealing with new people. He would like the players to stick around so he can deploy his charm on them," says one Sacramento lobbyist close to the governor's office. "It's possible he could trade away support for disemboweling term limits as part of some political deal."
But it's in the governor's interest to keep his pledge on term limits and push for redistricting reform again. Messrs. Perata and Nunez are currently stiffing him on his efforts to pass landmark measures on water policy and health care. Letting them off the term-limits hook would only weaken him, since the limit forcing him to leave office in 2010 would remain in place while the two Democratic leaders would remain power centers if their gutting of term limits passes.
"If he wants any legacy as a true reform governor, he should back redistricting changes now when there is still a political window for them before the 2010 census," says Roman Buhler, once a top aide on election issues to former Rep. Bill Thomas, and an adviser to the governor's failed 2005 redistricting reform. He points out that a ballot measure to reform redistricting could appear on the June (nonpresidential) primary ballot if supporters start to collect signatures now. Experts agree that the June ballot, which will not involve the hyperpartisanship and media clutter of a November election, offers the best opportunity to pass a reform measure.
He argues the political climate will be different in June 2008 than it was in 2005. Back then less than 70% of Republicans supported the overly complex measure proposed by their own party's governor. But today Mr. Schwarzenegger's approval rating is 59%, 25 points higher than in 2005. The Legislature's approval numbers have hovered around 30% throughout the last three years. At the same time, support for the general idea of taking away the power to draw districts from the legislature has remained popular with voters, who support the general idea by a 3-to-1 margin in most polls.
It's true Mr. Schwarzenegger has become estranged from GOP legislators since he moved left after his 2005 defeats to embrace a "postpartisan" agenda. But doing nothing on redistricting before he leaves office in 2010 would turn California into something approaching a one-party state without checks and balances. Tony Quinn, co-editor of the California Target Book, a nonpartisan analysis of state politics, says that if Democrats retake the governorship after Mr. Schwarzenegger's departure in 2010, it's "pretty clear" that they would use their control of the Legislature to push for the mother of all gerrymanders. "Democrats will use their mapmaking power to try to achieve a two-thirds majority in both houses of the legislature, thus wiping out the ability of Republicans to influence budget and tax legislation, which require a supermajority to pass," he wrote in the Los Angeles Times.
You would think California Republicans would take an active interest in the one-sided gerrymander that threatens them just over the horizon. The last time Democrats pressed their control of the redistricting pens, in 1981, they gained six congressional seats through what the late Democratic Rep. Phil Burton called "my contribution to modern art." One district was a 385-sided polygon. Another, which had the jagged and contorted contours of a Chinese dragon, included a floating "community" of boats in Los Angeles harbor that was disconnected from the rest of the district.
Almost everyone privately agrees that allowing California's legislature to retain monopoly control of redistricting produces bad government. It leads to polarizing elections in which moderates in both parties get squeezed out in primaries. It allows special interests to act as if they bought the Legislature which in many cases they did. But politicians never give up power voluntarily, so the only way that district lines will be made more compact and demographically coherent is through a voter initiative.
The problem is much bigger than California. Even in pivotal elections like 1994 and 2006, most House races are mind-numbingly uncompetitive. Of the 435 House races contested in 2004, a mere seven incumbents lost. Only 37 of the victors received 55% or less of the vote. And for every bipartisan gerrymander such as California's, there is a Democratic one (North Carolina) and a Republican (Florida).
Political competition is the lifeblood of American politics. The ability to vote out incumbents has proved to be far more effective than selectively enforced "ethics" rules. If gerrymandering is allowed to become more sophisticated, voters and defenders of good government will have to become more tenacious in fighting it. It's time for Mr. Schwarzenegger to decide whose side he is on that of the Sacramento power brokers he railed against when he won the historic 2003 recall election, or the people who will be increasingly disenfranchised if gerrymandering isn't brought under control.