Democracy on the line

Proposition 77 would eliminate partisan gerrymandering from California congressional and state legislative elections.

Roy Pak/Guardian

After the census is taken every 10 years, political districts for legislators are redrawn by the legislators themselves. In each state, the dominant party in the Legislature uses this advantage to pick and choose its own electorate to further consolidate its power. They twist, shape and bend as they so desire to create weirdly shaped and noncontiguous boundaries for politicians to safely keep their legislative seats or to create more officeholders from their own party.

For example, one would logically expect that the San Joaquin Valley city of Fresno is one consolidated district; instead, it has been partitioned into four districts that skew the city’s vote.

In 2000, the Republican and Democratic parties in California jointly redrew both state and federal districts to preserve the status quo, taking away any electoral unpredictability for the politicians. Consequently, no state or federal legislative office changed party in the 2004 election.

The politicians decided that the status quo would be preserved. Districts were created that were either dominated by one party or the other. Instead of the voters selecting their representatives, the politicians chose the voters. Why should we bother with voting?

“It was a bipartisan effort to protect incumbents,” Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Visalia) said in response to the Sacramento Bee’s inquiry of the congressional district map approved by Republican and Democratic leaders alike in September 2001. Nunes also said he realized that his crusade to change how districts get drawn, which has now been adopted by the governor, doesn’t make him popular among his colleagues — even those in his own party who benefit from the safe seats.

In the 2004 election, only five out of 80 assembly districts and two out of 39 senate district seats were won with less than 55 percent of the vote.

Tom DeLay is often bashed by Democrats for being responsible for the Texas Legislature’s gerrymandering to grow the Republican majority in congress that knocked off several incumbent Democrats. At the same time Democratic politicians in California refuse to support Proposition 77 because their majority status allows them to gerrymander and preserve the status quo.

It’s a double standard. Ohio Democrats are supporting a comparable state measure that also takes redistricting away from politicians, but they are opposing such action in California. Why don’t Democratic politicians support Proposition 77 in California as well? Because in Ohio they stand to gain seats from Republicans with the Ohio reform, but in California they don’t want to upset their advantageous status quo — even if it means giving up their principles. As a staunch Democrat, it saddens me that our entrenched politicians are willing to give up their values and principles to maintain power.

Gerrymandering takes away the electorate’s ability to hold representatives accountable: California Republican Congressman Richard Pombo recently diverted 25 percent of his campaign funds to his wife and son (why spend money campaigning when you’re going to win anyway?) and instead of responding to inquiries about this matter, his office simply refused to comment. The safety of his seat allowed him to convert political contributions to household income, and not care if the public knew he was corrupt because he was a sure-win anyway.

Proposition 77, if approved, would create a panel of three retired judges that would redraw political districts every 10 years instead of having legislators decide their electorates themselves. Picked from a pool of 24 volunteers selected at random by the state Judicial Council, the three judges — at least one Democrat and one Republican — would draw the districts without considering voting patterns and voter registration figures, and their decisions would have to be unanimous.

The initiative is not about creating compact, contiguous, minority-majority or competitive districts, nor does the language state any such goal; rather it is about preventing politicians from purposefully manipulating districts to suit their partisan and/or personal agenda, which would consequently create more compact, contiguous, geographically reasonable districts and possibly more competitive ones — or not.

It is about taking the power away from politicians and returning it to the public. No wonder some politicians from both parties aren’t very enamored with it.

Districts should be geographically reasonable and contiguous — not manipulated to suit a politician’s re-election. Proposition 77 is a good government reform initiative that prevents entrenched politicians from consolidating their power and playing the electorate.

Make sure you choose your representative, not the other way around; you should vote yes on Proposition 77 on Nov. 8 to end partisan gerrymandering.