In the past several decades even the casual voter has noticed that legislative General Elections are often a formality. Races are decided
in the primary, and the Republican winner in Huntington Beach is as safe as the Democratic winner in San Francisco. Statewide, less than 8 percent of the state’s voters have seen a competitive General Election in the past 20 years.
The campaign for Prop 11, and its fundraising pitch to donors, was built almost entirely around the promise that it would fix this. The measure would create “competitive” elections, reduce partisan gridlock, and moderate the legislature.
According to Doug Johnson with the Rose Institute, a think tank directly engaged in promoting redistricting reform, “Both parties are more likely to moderate their messages when they’re fighting for competitive seats across the state.” And this idea of more competitive elections, with Democrats and Republicans and Independents fighting over issues in the General Election has a strong appeal to voters.
With a campaign based on this concept it is noteworthy that the Proposition 11 ballot language lacked one word: “competitive.” Despite all the talk of more vibrant and relevant elections, General Election contests where candidates will have to actually debate solutions to the state budget, taxes, spending, education, jobs, healthcare and the environment, nothing in the initiative actually creates this change. In fact, it could make things more partisan!
California already has a map with major divisions based on what demographers call “residential sorting.” Liberals move to Santa Monica and San Francisco to be near other liberals, independent movie houses, art museums and local coffee shops. Conservatives move to Riverside to get near other conservatives, open space, good schools and cul-de-sacs. While this sorting isn’t based directly on a division of D’s and R’s it can actually have stronger partisan contrasts than the current legislative lines which were drawn in 2001 largely to protect incumbents.
Before any pen is put to paper the commission is being directed to follow a new set of criteria: keeping communities together, avoiding division of cities and counties, and pursuing geographically compact districts. Using these rules to draw maps for a state that has already sorted itself into ideological clusters will only serve to keep like-minded voters together and reinforce our polarized representation in Sacramento.
Furthermore, the commission is not allowed to draw lines to favor or discriminate against an incumbent, candidate or political party. Under this criteria the commission would be prohibited from taking a strong Democratic district and purposefully including a cluster of Republican voters with the intent of disadvantaging the Democrats. Creating competitiveness in this way is actually disallowed.
It is likely that the authors of Prop 11 avoided putting any competitive criteria in the measure because it would become a lightning rod for post-redraw legal challenges. Definitions of “competitive” are varied, there are a number of competing metrics, and a plan could be held up by the courts for years based on this one word.
The Proposition 11 commission could very well luck into more competitive districts. And even if it doesn’t create competitive seats, some believe that any redraw that started from scratch would be a success simply because it would be a major disruption to the status quo of the Legislature.
In the short term, proponents (and political consultants) will likely celebrate whatever maps are drawn as they will create more elections. Academics and consultants have drawn a few maps with an eye on the new criteria. These informal maps with approximated census data create more than a dozen new seats with no incumbent and draw together a handful of current legislators. The impact of Proposition 11, in combination with the 23 members already termed out in 2012, will be a post-redraw Assembly that has anywhere from 35-40 new legislators. The impact on the Senate could be similar, but with only odd-numbered districts up in 2012 it wont be until 2014 that the new lines will be fully implemented.
While these impacts of redistricting would be a major shaking of the ant farm, the districts themselves may be no less partisan, General elections in future years could be even less competitive, and the end result should be districts that continue a polarization that lends to the divisiveness of the Legislature.