Cal Politic

A weblog dedicated to California politics. A thriving democracy depends on an informed body politic.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Why Arnold's Redistricting Plan is a Disaster for Democrats

Did you really think Arnold Schwarzenegger was pushing a mid-decade redistricting in California out of the goodness of his heart?

Make no mistake about it, redistricting is nothing more than a power struggle. It's about who has power, who wants power, and who is going to do whatever it takes to get power.

Read the fine print.

Much has been made about the fact that Schwarzenegger's plan takes redistricting out of the hands of the State Legislature and puts it into the hands of three retired judges. But the real power in Schwarzenegger's plan is not the panel of judges; it is the fact that the judges can only draw maps after following a set of strict and powerful criteria - criteria that hurts Democrats and helps Republicans.

Schwarzenegger disguises his initiative as a plan to take politics out of redistricting, but in reality, it is cleverly designed to draw neat, compact districts that pack Democrats into heavily Democratic seats. This strategy leaves the remaining seats stacked in favor of Republicans. Steven Hill, a fellow with the New America Foundation explains it well.

The urban vote is more concentrated, and so it's easier to pack Democratic voters into fewer districts. As Democratic redistricting strategist Sam Hirsch has noted, nice square districts are in effect a Republican gerrymander because they "combine a decade-old (but previously unnoticed) Republican bias" that along with a newly heightened degree of incumbent protection "has brought us one step closer to government under a United States House of Unrepresentatives."

Schwarzenegger's Compactness Criteria:
Arnold's redistricting criteria in Prop 77 sounds non-partisan:

1) Judges must maximize the number of whole counties in each district, and minimize the number of multi-district counties.
2) Judges must maximize the number of whole cities in each district, and minimize the number of multi-district cities.
3) Districts must be as compact as practicable. To the extent practicable, a contiguous area of population shall not be bypassed to incorporate an area of population more distant.

Fair and balanced, right? Wrong! These redistricting rules will have devastating effects on the power of Democratic voters. Here's how it works.

Schwarzenegger's plan takes advantage of the geographic phenomenon that voters in urban centers vote heavily Democratic. In contrast, outlying suburban and rural areas lean Republican. In almost direct proportion, the further away from the urban core of a city, the more conservative the voting behavior.

Couple this with the fact that in recent years, local migration patterns have been steadily away from expensive liberal coastal areas, sending more people into more affordable suburban areas in the Central Valley and Inland Empire, where voters become more conservative, just like their neighbors.

In the next two decades, populations are projected to increase by 45 percent in inland counties, compared to 17 percent in coastal ones, the state's historical population centers. Inland counties will also have more absolute growth, 4.8 million compared to 4.4 million for their coastal counterparts. The fastest growth rates will be in the Inland Empire (Riverside and San Bernardino counties), the San Joaquin Valley, and the Sacramento metropolitan areas...

By requiring judges to draw a redistricting map that emphasizes compact districts incoroporating entire cities, the criteria in Prop 77 literally corrals Democrats into urban districts. These districts could be as much as 80% Deocratic. Districts will be so liberal, candidates will be munching on granola, wearing tie-dye and debating over whether condoms should be distributed to students in 4th grade or 6th grade.

Where does this leave the remaining districts? They'll be rural and suburban, and stacked in favor of the Republicans.

It's a classic Republican gerrymander. Pack all the Democrats into a few heavily Democratic districts, leaving Republicans with slight edges in the majority of seats.

Look at California on the map of Purple America. California has blue strongholds in the Bay Area and Los Angeles, but is purple everywhere else.

There is no way to predict with any certainty what a new map of Prop 77 Congressional districts would look like. Judges could draw lines north-south, east-west, in infinite variations. However, the Schwarzenegger compactness criteria are present in every possible plan. This presents a statistical nightmare to ordinary citizens, but a wildly interesting challenge to mathematical geniuses and political junkies like Micah Altman at Harvard who wrote a dissertation on almost exactly this topic.

Compactness standards, rather than being the neutral standard that the court envisions, are likely to have distinctly partisan effects. These simulation results contradicts the view of compactness advocates and bears out Lowenstein's (1985) assertion that compactness is not a partisan-neutral standard because of the way that Democrats are concentrated geographically.

In other words, most compactness standards will give the GOP an advantage over Democrats.

Maybe this would explain why the Chair of the California Republican Party, Duf Sundheim, is so adamant about supporting Prop 77.

I ask that every Republican elected official in California whether he/she holds a municipal seat or a seat in the United States Congress support the fundamental principles of fairness and competition and not provide financial aid to defeat Proposition 77. These are principles that the Republican Party holds dear and principles that the CRP will not turn its back on - no matter whose job is put at risk.

When Republicans start using terms like "principles of fairness", it's time to be worried.

California's Congressional Delegation is currently composed of 32 Democrats and 20 Republicans, a 61%-39% advantage.
In 2004, Kerry only beat Bush by 10 points in California, 54%-44%. A 2006 redistricting with Arnold's pro-GOP "compactness criteria" would make the Congressional delegation worse off than 54%-44% (28-24 seats). That means the loss of at least four Democratic seats in the House - exactly what Tom Delay stole from Texas last Fall.

If Democrats ever want a chance at taking back our government, we need to stop the whining, stop the in-fighting, and concentrate on the things that actually change elections. Again, I turn to Steven Hill.

But has this stark reality of our political landscape made a dent in liberal or Democratic understanding of "what to do?" Hardly. Instead, moderate and progressive wings of the Democratic Party have been cannibalizing each other over the no-win debate about the base versus swing voters. Or else they have been fiddling to the latest fad about Lakoffian reframing.

How convenient, to think you don't have to engage in the hard work of enacting fundamental electoral reform, city by city and state-by-state, all you have to do is find better speechwriters and produce slicker TV ads and then the left can go back to its poetry nights.

The biggest battle for control of Congress won't be happening in Ohio or Texas or Colorado. And it won't even happen in 2006. Control of the US House of Representatives for decades to come hinges on an arcane redistricting initiative on a special election ballot this November in California.

There's a campaign on, and it's time we got involved.