The $20,000 Incumbent Bargain
What if you could pay $20,000, and for that modest
sum end up with lifetime employment at a salary of $158,000 annually, with
the best health and retirement benefits, frequent travel to Washington DC,
and staff and paid expenses, all on the public's dime? What a deal, eh?
As the most recent election results show, that's the
situation for California's congressional delegation as a result of
gerrymandering their own legislative district lines. The 2001
redistricting in California was a travesty. The Democratic incumbents paid
$20,000 apiece to the political consultant drawing the district lines —
who happened to be the brother of one incumbent — to draw each of them a
"safe seat" where they would easily win re-election. It was like paying
protection money to a Mafia don for your turf. Congresswoman Loretta
Sanchez, knowing a bargain, told a reporter, "Twenty thousand is nothing
to keep your seat. I usually spend $2 million every election."
Then, to the dismay of national Democrats, the
California Democrats controlling the line-drawing gave the GOP incumbents
safe seats too, in return for their acceptance. The fix was in. It was a
bipartisan collusion against California democracy and the voters. And it
worked. In the recent November election, 51 out of 53 congressional seats
were won by huge landslide margins.
The Democrats also drew safe seats for the state
senate and assembly districts. Those resulted in 90 percent of state
legislative races won by landslide margins in the recent election. The
incumbents literally did away with most legislative elections in
California. Forget about "money buying elections," most elections are
decided during the line-rigging process, when the politicians use
sophisticated computers to handpick their voters before voters pick them.
But that's not all. This backroom redistricting has
produced a government where hard-core partisans dominate the legislature
and fewer moderates get elected. It has exacerbated a Red vs. Blue
California marked by regional balkanization, where the high population
coastal Blue areas are dominated by Democrats and the low population Red
interior by Republicans. Not that there aren't Democrats in red areas and
Republicans in blue areas — as well as independents and third party
supporters — it's just that they rarely win representation. Purple
California gets smothered in the zero-sum game of winner-take-all
Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Republican recall
activist Ted Costa, and others have proposed taking redistricting out of
the hands of a partisan legislature. This makes sense, but the devil is in
the details. For instance, the Costa initiative would immediately reopen
redistricting instead of waiting until the end of this decade, as is
customary. And it would create an unwieldy process that requires any
redistricting plan to receive voter approval. This is a formula for bitter
partisan battles that will disrupt the remainder of the decade.
More important, even the best-intentioned "public
interest redistricting" will have limited impact in addressing
redistricting's many ills. Because at the end of the day the problem is
not just who draws the legislative lines; it's our antiquated, single-seat
district, winner-take-all system.
The Democratic vote has become so highly urbanized
and concentrated that even the fairest redistricting will make only a
handful of districts more competitive. And there is a tradeoff between
making more seats competitive and allowing "communities of interest" such
as minorities to elect their chosen representative. Winner-take-all
elections pit everyone against each other — Democrats, Republicans,
independents, different racial groups — all trying to win a limited
So what can be done? Political scientist Arend
Lijphart from University of California-San Diego says "the best solution
is to evolve from winner-take-all elections toward some moderate form of
proportional representation." For example, in the state senate, instead of
electing 40 individual district seats, we could elect 10 districts with
four seats each, elected by a proportional method where a party's
candidates wins legislative seats in proportion to their percentage of the
popular vote. Twenty percent of the vote wins one seat, 60% wins three
seats, and so on.
According to Professor Lijphart, that would make all
parts of the state competitive for both major parties, occasionally even a
third party. Rural areas would elect some Democrats and coastal areas some
Republicans. And moderates and independents running grassroots campaigns
outside party machines would get elected. Purple California would have a
voice. Illinois' state legislature has used such a system, and their
experience shows it's a better way to foster competitive elections, elect
more moderates, reduce balkanization, and provide minority representation.
If Governor Schwarzenegger and others really want to
do something about the ills of redistricting, simply changing who draws
the district lines won't accomplish much. It's necessary to get rid of
California's antiquated winner-take-all system, and adopt some version of
the more modern proportional representation system.
Steven Hill is Irvine Senior Fellow of the New
America Foundation, and author of "Fixing Elections: The Failure of
America's Winner Take All Politics" (www.FixingElections.com).