In recent elections, a record 98 percent of House incumbents seeking re-election have been returned to office, and the vast majority of those winners faced no serious competition for their seats. While the rising cost of making a serious House bid certainly is a factor, it’s clear that an excess of safe seats created by politician-led redistricting has made the House nearly impervious to challengers.
Now California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) has stepped into the fray, asking state legislators to strip themselves of their map-drawing powers and hand the task to a panel of retired judges. The governor makes a persuasive case: Not a single Congressional or legislative seat in California changed parties during the 2004 elections, and few races were even competitive.
His plan is not without inconsistencies and shortcomings, and a flurry of negotiations is anticipated. If the Legislature fails to act, as is likely, then the governor is prepared to place a measure on the ballot, hoping voters will follow his lead and want to break the incumbent protection racket.
In our view, Schwarzenegger should hew closely to a proposed ballot initiative submitted by Ted Costa, a leader in precipitating the 2003 recall election that produced Schwarzenegger’s victory. Costa’s plan melds features of the redistricting procedures used in Iowa and Arizona. Under the proposal, judges would be chosen from a carefully screened pool and insulated politically. They would be under orders to keep counties and municipalities as whole as possible, to make districts compact, and to ignore voting or registration patterns and incumbents’ residences. Once a map was produced, it would be placed on the ballot for voter approval. If the residents voted it down, the process would repeat itself.
The Costa plan is not perfect. It ought to clarify that the judges are empowered to draw lines, rather than just sift through plans submitted to them. The group of judges should be expanded beyond three, to promote geographic and demographic diversity, and the final law should have a plan for enforcing a map expeditiously if voters reject the judges’ offerings. Moreover, the governor will need to decide between two valid but mutually exclusive paths: whether voting patterns should be ignored (as Costa suggests) or considered so that districts can be made competitive (as the governor prefers).
Most importantly, Schwarzenegger should not seek to implement his plan after the 2006 elections as he has said he wants to do. A redraw in 2006 would continue the terrible precedent of off-year re-redistricting initiated by the GOP two years ago in Texas (successfully) and Colorado (where a court wisely blocked the effort). Except for judicial remaps required to fix civil rights violations or similar legal flaws, redistricting should be done every 10 years — period.
The proposal has drawn criticism from both sides of the aisle, always an unmistakable sign that you’re doing something right. But Californians should embrace it — and then hold their collective breath and hope the rest of the nation follows their lead.