Saturday, January 15, 2005

Redistricting, redux

Since I last posted about Arnold's plan to end gerrymandering in California, I've become more in favor of it (perhaps I should have trusted my initial reaction). Here's why.

The current gerrymandering setup is primarily designed not to increase Democratic majorities, but to preserve the seats of incumbents. This is because it was created in a bipartisan deal and approved by both Republicans and Democrats. The Democrats could have done far worse in terms of sheer partisanship. Peter Beinart says,
When it redistricted in 2001, California's state legislature drew congressional lines that virtually guaranteed reelection for every incumbent, Republican and Democrat. As a result, in 2002, only one of the state's 53 districts witnessed a contested race (and that district wouldn't have been competitive either had Representative Gary Condit not gotten embroiled in the scandal over murdered intern Chandra Levy). Two years later, in 2004, not a single California House seat changed party hands. 
This has two implications: first, that ending gerrymandering wouldn't necessarily lose the Democrats many seats; and second, that the current plan also hurts Democrats by making it impossible for us to pick up new seats. So the situation isn't necessarily the harsh "Prisoner's Dilemma" I thought it was.

Plus, as Jesse Zink points out, Democrats do need a galvanizing issue. The Republicans swept into power in 1994 partly on the idea that Congress needed a breath of fresh air. Already after 10 years, they have corrupted it with their ethics shenanigans and DeLay's disgusting gerrymandering in Texas. We need another breath of fresh air, and we Democrats ought to provide some moral leadership.

On the actual merits of the redistricting plan, some have argued that "political" matters ought to stay in the hands of politicians. For example, an article via Jesse Zink,
I've always held the almost incontestable position that redistricting is the most political of acts. And my correlative, therefore, has been that the process belongs in the hands of politicians, no matter how unattractive the work often becomes.

I've even made fun of silly ol' progessive Iowa for, after years of partisan legislative wrangling over redistricting as the fortunes of Democrats and Republicans in the Hawkeye State waxed and waned, giving the job, at least in the initial stage, to, egads, bureaucrats.
But that's an absurd objection on its face: Democracy is about limiting the naked exercise of power (which, after all, is what politics is at its heart). Voting is "political" too, but it doesn't therefore follow that voting belongs in the hands of politicians. In fact, usually we want to make sure the people in charge of elections are nonpartisan. It is precisely because certain elements of democracy are so central, so vital, so sensitive to corruption, that we have to take them out of the hands of those in power. This is just an extension of the principle of "separation of powers" that frames the whole US Constitution.

If Arnold manages to hammer out a consensus plan that works as well as Iowa's does, I'll support it.


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