Party Power on the Line in Remap Fights

By: - November 4, 2005 12:00 am

Two novel but vastly different redistricting initiatives go before Ohio and California voters Tuesday, Nov. 8, in a backlash against the lack of meaningful races between Democrats and Republicans for legislative posts.

If approved, the measures could affect the balance of power in the U.S. House and pave the way for more competitive congressional and statehouse races in other states. Already, reformers in Massachusetts and Florida are building support for similar efforts.

“If both of these pass, it would definitely set off alarm bells around the country,” said Tim Storey, an expert on redistricting from the National Conference of State Legislatures .

But recent polls suggest that voters in both states, inundated by other controversial and complicated ballot initiatives, have yet to warm to the redistricting reforms that deal with, as Storey put it, “consummate inside baseball.”

The California and Ohio initiatives both attempt to take the all-important drawing of voting districts out of the hands of politicians.

The California measure, backed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), would hand the duties from the Democratic-controlled Legislature to a panel of three retired judges. Their redistricting map would be used in 2006, but it would only become “permanent”—lasting until the 2010 Census—if California voters ratified it.

No other state requires voter approval of its legislative or congressional maps.

Both in the 1970s and the 1990s, courts drew California’s legislative districts after lawmakers and the governor reached an impasse, and nearly everybody in California agreed that those maps were more competitive than the ones passed by lawmakers, said Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles. Stern’s group, though, has other problems with the California ballot measure and doesn’t support its passage.

Ohio would become the first state to make competitive races a top priority in its map-making process. The proposal employs a complicated formula designed to make as many legislative and congressional districts competitive between Democrats and Republicans as possible.

Ohio already is one of a dozen states where the Legislature doesn’t draw legislative boundaries. Besides demanding competitiveness in districts, the ballot initiative also would cleanse all politicians from its current five-member panel of elected officials, including the governor, and turn redistricting over to a five-member panel of non-politicians chosen by two judges, their appointees or by lot.

If successful, the California and Ohio initiatives would be the latest early overhauls to legislative maps, which lay the foundation of political power in this country.  Normally, legislatures draw electoral maps once a decade after a federal census. But five states, all controlled by Republicans, retooled their legislative districts after the initial round of cartography in 2001.

Most famously, Texas Republicans pushed through an overhaul of congressional and legislative districts after Democratic lawmakers fled the state in an unsuccessful attempt to thwart the move. The revamped map helped the GOP pad its majority in the U.S. House in the 2004 elections.

Lawmakers in Georgia, South Carolina, New Hampshire and Colorado also adopted new maps without a new census and without a court order forcing them to do so. (The new Colorado map was struck down, and Democrats there later took control of the Legislature.)

Unlike previous revisions, though, the Ohio and California proposals are being promoted by politicians in minority parties. And the proponents are going directly to voters instead of hammering out deals at the capitol in an attempt to tap frustration of voters with majority parties protecting their power with carefully tailored districts.

Both Ohio and California have term limits for state lawmakers, so a quarter of California’s state senators and 30 percent of the Assembly relinquished their seats in 2004, according to the NCSL. In Ohio, 15 percent of the Senate and 16 percent of the House did not return.

Still, in last year’s California election, not a single Assembly, Senate or congressional seat changed hands between parties. In fact, not a single incumbent lawmaker lost in the Golden State.

Ohio voters, considered pivotal in the race for the presidency, returned nearly all of their incumbent legislators to office as well. Only a single Ohio House member failed in her re-election bid. All 18 members of Congress and all state senators up for re-election held on to their seats.

Steve Poizner, the chairman of the Yes on 77 , a group backing the California redistricting effort, said legislators have protected themselves from voters who might be upset about the incumbent-friendly districts lawmakers approved.

“The big picture is that the politicians have rigged the system totally and completely,” Poizner said.

He pointed to one congressional district in central California that he called the “Ribbon of Shame.”

“It’s 200 miles long, at points it’s 200 yards wide and, at high tide, the district breaks in half,” Poizner said.

Kimball Brace, president of Election Data Services , a Washington-based political consulting firm specializing in redistricting, said the general public probably wouldn’t like the results of extremely competitive maps as proposed in Ohio.

“It’s not that it would make them difficult to draw, but if you thought the gerrymanders before were bad, wait until you see these,” he said.

Evenly split districts would tend to stretch across states so they could include both Democrats in urban areas and Republicans in suburban and rural areas. (Opponents of the Ohio measure drew this map of congressional districts that, they claim, shows how outlandish the results could be under the measure.)

And making political competition the overriding factor for evaluating districts would give mapmakers reason to downplay other considerations – such as minority populations, political and geographical boundaries and communities of interest, Brace said.

Areas that are predominantly black or Hispanic tend to support Democrats, so districts where more than half of voters are minorities usually aren’t competitive between parties, he explained.

A dozen states, including Ohio, already use special panels to draw their legislative boundaries, according to the NCSL . Five more rely on committees if state lawmakers fail to come up with a plan. Furthermore, six of the 12 states that use commissions also use them to create congressional districts. 

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