If you lived in California in 2004, chances are the winners of last November’s federal elections in your jurisdiction were a foregone conclusion.
The presidential and Senate elections were never in doubt in California. Nor, for that matter, were most U.S. House races, which were rarely even close. Only three of the losing candidates in California’s 53 congressional districts managed to win as much as 40% of the vote, and the closest margin of victory for any winner was a relatively comfortable eight percentage points.
The bottom line: Gerrymandering of congressional districts diminished the incentive for Californians to vote in 2004. And that, of course, is exactly the way the entrenched politicians like it.
California is not alone in one-sided House contests. In Florida, the incumbent advantage was so strong in 2004 that incumbents did not have a major-party opponent in over one-third of the state’s congressional districts. Rep. Katherine Harris (R.) was the only winner who failed to achieve a victory margin of at least 20 points (which perhaps explains the GOP’s unease over the possibility of her being the party’s 2006 Senate candidate).
Having competitive races is important for a healthy democracy. Closer races bring voters to the booth as they recognize their vote makes a difference. For proof, look at Texas, which had both competitive and non-competitive House races in 2004. The House races with winners who won 55% of the vote or less had turnout five points higher than the races that were not close.
In California, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger succeeded in putting a measure—Proposition 77—on this fall’s ballot that would throw the politicians out of the redistricting process. Instead, a panel of retired judges working under tight guidelines would draw political boundaries.
The measure has drawn the ire of all the usual pro-government suspects, such as the teacher unions, that don’t want to rock the boat in Sacramento or Washington, D.C. The California League of Women Voters (LWV)—which laughably still claims to be interested in good government but whose efforts are reliably in support of bigger government—of course opposes Prop. 77. The league bemoans the fact that legislative leaders—yes, those same leaders who prosper from the current system—weren’t more involved in the drafting of the proposal. The league complains the proposal neglects “communities of interest” in drawing up redistricting plans.
And not surprisingly, the political class that so richly benefits under the current system is also opposing Prop. 77. A bipartisan group of U.S. representatives—led by Republican John Doolittle and Democrat Howard Berman—is raising enormous sums of money against the measure.
So the listing of Prop. 77’s opponents—the pro-government lobbies (both those who admit it, and those, like the LWV, who pretend to be pro-reform) and entrenched politicians—may be all anyone needs to see in deciding how to vote. But Prop. 77 can and should stand on its merits. If California voters really want fairer elections and greater turnout, here’s their opportunity.