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Reform Redistricting

Shame on Ohio Republicans, California Democrats and Florida Republicans: They are shouting vociferously, and spending extravagantly, to defeat redistricting reforms that would inject competition and citizen choice into U.S. House and state legislative campaigns.

Ohio and California have referenda on the ballot next Tuesday — Issue 4 and Proposition 77, respectively — that would transfer redistricting power from elected officials to independent boards. In Florida, signatures are being gathered for a similar referendum in 2006.

Even though Republicans and Democrats have been at war about virtually everything in recent years, they managed to reach cozy agreements after the 2000 Census to gerrymander legislative and Congressional districts to protect incumbents, virtually guaranteeing that one party or the other can count a district as “safe” and thereby limit citizen choice. Politicians choose their voters, effectively thwarting a basic tenet of representative democracy.

Among the many undesirable effects of no-competition House races is that they contribute to the polarization of politics in Washington, D.C. Members and candidates don’t have to appeal across party lines. To stay in office, they simply have to avoid a primary in their own party. This pushes Democrats to the left, Republicans to the right and bipartisan agreement out of the picture. It also makes Members more beholden to party leaders for their survival.

According to calculations published in Roll Call’s “Out There” column on Oct. 26, California, Ohio and Florida rank No. 2, 3 and 5 among the states with the least competitive House districts in the nation in the past three campaign cycles. No. 1 was Massachusetts, where reformers are trying to put a referendum on the ballot in 2008.

In heavily Democratic California, some top Republicans believe that fair redistricting might actually increase the Democrats’ advantage in House seats from the party’s present 33-to-20 ratio. Yet Proposition 77 is being fought by the Democratic Party, and specifically by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), so that today’s incumbents can be protected and the effort’s primary backer, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), can be weakened.

In Ohio, House Republicans outnumber Democrats, 12-6, even though the state broke only 51 percent to 49 percent for President Bush in 2004. In all but two Ohio House races last year, the winner received more than 60 percent of the vote. Before it got the upper hand in Ohio politics, the GOP favored redistricting reform (and state Democrats opposed it). Now, the GOP is fighting Issue 4 with everything it has, going so far as to distribute fliers charging that the measure somehow is hostile to “family values.”

In Florida, where Bush got 52 percent of the vote in 2004, the GOP holds 18 of the state’s 25 House seats and controls two-thirds of the seats in the Legislature. The state’s GOP House Speaker, Alan Bense, so wants to keep things that way that he is seeking to spend $50,000 of the taxpayers’ money to hire a legal team to block a redistricting referendum.

The California and Ohio propositions aren’t perfect, to be sure. They would produce new election maps for 2006, rather than waiting for a new census in 2010. Still, we hope they carry. And we hope both parties and all states will realize that in politics, as in economics, competition is good for consumers.

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