Monday, November 14, 2005

On Redistricting, Voters Have Spoken Up for the Status Quo

By Stuart Rothenberg

Voters seem less than pleased these days with thedirection of the country, the performance of thepresident and the performance of Congress. In manystates, this sense of dissatisfaction extends to thegovernor and state legislature.

Yet when voters in California and Ohio were presentedwith the option of taking away from state legislatorsthe right to draw their own district lines, the votersturned their thumbs down. They stuck with the currentsystem.

Specifically, in Ohio, voters turned down Issue 4, astatewide ballot measure that would have created a“nonpartisan” panel to draw the state’s Congressionaldistricts every 10 years, instead of allowing thestate Legislature to do it.

The measure lost overwhelmingly (drawing only 30percent) even though scandal has ripped through thestate, discrediting Gov. Bob Taft (R) and a major GOPfundraiser at the same time an Ohio RepublicanCongressman is under a cloud for allegedly allowing alobbyist to pay for a golf outing in Scotland.

In California, Proposition 77, which would haveamended the state’s constitution to take Congressionaland state legislative redistricting away from theLegislature and handed those responsibilities over toa new three-member panel of retired judges, went downto defeat as well, 59 percent to 41 percent.

Voters don’t need me to lecture them about theirdecisions, and I won’t. I have a self-interest in thecreation of more competitive House districts, since Ihandicap those races and would likely benefit frommore competitive contests.

But I’m not the only one who thinks creating morecompetitive districts would be a healthy development,both for Congress and for the two-party system.Democracy requires competition, and too many one-partydistricts breed cynicism and politicians who seelittle or no need to compromise once they reachWashington, D.C.

Whether you agree with that or not, it is stillnoteworthy that voters who seem so dissatisfied withthe current state of the nation and national politicswere so content to stick with the status quo when itcame to the drawing of district boundaries.

Nationally, polls show that voters don’t have aparticularly high opinion of Republicans or Democratsin Congress, and I rarely meet people who trustpoliticians further than they could throw them.

Yet voters in Ohio and California rejected proposalsto change the current system that allows statelegislators to draw their own district lines. How isthis possible?

In California, Democrats had an obvious politicalreason to oppose the proposition, since new linescould undermine the party’s dominant position in thestate Legislature and cut the party’s margin in thestate’s Congressional delegation.

Politics being what it is, their opposition was bothpredictable and understandable. Some state GOPlegislators opposed the measure, fearful that newlines would put their political careers at risk.There’s principle for you, huh?

More than a few Golden State voters undoubtedlyopposed the initiative because it was supported byGov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), whose poll numbershave sunk more quickly than the Titanic.

All of the high-profile measures backed by thegovernor were defeated, so in voting againstProposition 77, some voters were simply sending amessage to the Terminator that they didn’t want topass anything that had his fingerprints on it.

In Ohio, it was Republicans who were threatened byIssue 4, so many opposed the new plan (which wouldhave required another round of redistricting prior tothe 2008 elections) in order to protect the party’slegislative and Congressional incumbents.

In both Ohio and California, some voters almostcertainly opposed the ballot measures simply becausethey regarded the entire matter as arcane, complicatedand confusing.

As one insider who supported the Ohio redistrictingballot measure told me Tuesday, it’s far easier toexplain the benefits of simplified absentee voting orthe advantages of campaign contribution limits than itis to first explain how districts are drawn, thenexplain why that system needs to be changed andfinally to propose a new system for drawing the lines.

Days before the results were in, true “reformers” —I’m not talking about partisans who jumped on thereform bandwagon but only wanted to redraw districtsto improve their electoral opportunities next time —were claiming victory of a sort. They insisted thatthey had already begun to “educate” voters and wouldpress on with the battle to change the way districtsare drawn.

Sorry, but that dog won’t hunt.

A dispassionate assessment of the Ohio and Californiaballot measures can only interpret the results as ablow to those who want to change how district linesare drawn. Voters simply don’t care enough about theprocess of drawing legislative and Congressionaldistricts, and it will be hard to motivate them inother states to support changes via the ballot.

This column originially appeared in Roll Call on November 10, 2005. Copyright 2005 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.