Redistricting Reform: A Rare Progressive Success

Tuesday was a disaster for Democrats, of course, but it was perhaps the best day ever for a cause that many progressives hold dear: redistricting reform.
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Tuesday was a disaster for Democrats, of course, but it was perhaps the best day ever for a cause that many progressives hold dear: redistricting reform. In California, Proposition 20 passed with over 60 percent of the vote, giving the citizen commission established in 2008 responsibility for Congressional redistricting as well as state legislative redistricting. Proposition 27, which would have dismantled the commission and returned redistricting to the legislature, was soundly defeated. In Florida, similarly, the two Fair Districts initiatives both passed, again with over 60 percent of the vote. As a result, Florida's legislature will now have to abide by a set of fairly rigorous rules--compactness, respect for political subdivisions, no intent to favor any party or incumbent--when it conducts its next round of Congressional and state legislative redistricting.

The success of California's Proposition 20 more than doubles the number of Congressional districts nationwide that will be redrawn by commission in 2011. In the next cycle, about 20 percent of districts (an all-time high) will not be crafted by self-interested politicians. Within California, Proposition 20's passage makes it unlikely that the bipartisan gerrymandering that has long shielded the state's incumbents from any serious challenge will be repeated in the next decade. The citizen commission can be expected to devise a district map that is more competitive as well as more reflective of the state's demographic and geographic realities. In Florida, similarly, the state legislature will now be more constrained in its ability to gerrymander in favor of the dominant Republican Party. Any highly partisan plan will immediately be challenged on the ground that it was designed "to favor or disfavor an incumbent or political party."

It is quite surprising that the California and Florida initiatives managed to pass (particularly since the Florida measures had to clear a 60 percent threshold). A few years ago, I examined all redistricting initiatives in American history and found that the vast majority of them (especially in recent years) failed. Typically, the measures were popular when they were first introduced, but then were discredited by fierce opposition from the majority party in the state, which stood to lose seats if the initiatives prevailed. True to form, both the Democrats in California and the Republicans in Florida vigorously resisted this year's measures. California Democrats placed the rival Proposition 27 on the ballot, while Florida Republicans first tried to have the Fair Districts initiatives disqualified by the Florida Supreme Court and then (unsuccessfully) attempted to add their own poison-pill measure to the ballot.

How, then, did the California and Florida initiatives pass despite such determined opposition? One answer is that they did not try to do too much. Proposition 20 merely entrusted California's existing citizen commission with one more responsibility (Congressional redistricting). Not coincidentally, it received much more support than Proposition 11 in 2008, which created the commission in the first place and passed with just 51 percent of the vote. Similarly, the Fair Districts initiatives only sought to provide the Florida legislature with rules to follow when it redistricts. They did not try to actually take away the legislature's redistricting authority. They thus prevailed at the same time that every Democratic candidate for statewide office was defeated.

A second answer is that the California and Florida measures enjoyed significant media and financial backing. The vast majority of newspapers in both states (including all the major ones) endorsed the initiatives. In California, activist Charles Munger poured in $12 million on behalf of Proposition 20, singlehandedly outspending the combined opposition. Similarly, Fair Districts Florida raised substantially more money (largely from Democratic-leaning interest groups) than its opponents. It is not a surprise that newspaper endorsements and campaign ads exert at least some influence on the electorate.

Finally, and most speculatively, today's voters may be more receptive to good-government reforms than their predecessors. In a climate of widespread disgust with all politicians, voters may now be willing to embrace redistricting reform even if it is opposed by the party they otherwise support. If that is the case, then proponents of fair redistricting would be wise to strike while the iron is hot. Major states that permit popular initiatives but currently lack Congressional redistricting commissions include Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, and Oregon. Here's hoping this year's successes generate an even bigger wave of reform in 2012.

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