“All politics is local.” The truth of Tip O’Neill’s famous quip may sting some senior California House members as the state’s redistricting efforts land them in newly-formed districts that they might not be able to carry.
The new district map is the product of a bi-partisan citizen’s commission established by Proposition 11. Enacted directly by voters in 2008 and expanded in 2010, the law amended the state constitution to move redistricting authority from the legislature to a bipartisan commission of Republicans, Democrats, and Independents. Tasked with redrawing not only congressional districts but State Senate, Assembly, and Board of Equalization districts as well, the commission’s work will go into effect for the 2012 election.
Direct democracy has had a troubled past. Plato famously lost faith in it when the Athenians voted to condemn Socrates to death. To James Madison and the Founders, tyranny of the majority like that seen against the Quakers in Pennsylvania was the consequence of putting too much power in the hands of the people. Some have viewed the inchoate Tea Party Populism with a cautious eye.
Today, about half of the states permit initiatives, the process by which voters place legislative measures directly on the ballot. Critics of initiatives point to its penchant for denying rights to certain groups. For example, in the 1990s California citizens passed Proposition 187, denying state benefits to illegal aliens. This law took years of challenges and injunctions to strike down. But with the redistricting commission, many in California are yet again placing their hopes in an iteration of direct democracy to save what they see as a broken system.
Safety in numbers
Most House districts in the United States are not competitive. Many district lines have been redrawn to ensure political or demographic majorities. Backlash elections notwithstanding, incumbency advantage is a well-documented phenomenon resulting in “sophomore surge,” an increase in votes of about 8 to 10 percent for incumbents seeking reelection. Districts where incumbents are reelected by 55 percent or more are considered “safe” and roughly 90 percent of districts are.
Rep. Elton Gallegly (R), elected to California’s 21st district in 1986, has benefited well from district politics and has twice successfully navigated redrawn district lines. He has held his district well beyond “safe,” garnering above 55 percent of the vote in 11 out of 13 elections, even as his district changed to the 23rd in 1992 and the 24th in 2002.
Adjacent to Gallegly’s 24th is another “safe” district. Narrowing to only several hundred feet at times, California’s 23rd district snakes along the state’s scenic coastline for two-hundred miles from Morro Bay to Oxnard. Indeed, it has derisively been called the “district that appears at high tide.” It is held by Democrat Lois Capps, who entered Congress in a special election in 1998 in what was then the 22nd district. She has been reelected with greater than 55% of the vote in all but one election since.
Such gerrymandered districts are not uncommon in California, but they have recently attracted attention as partisanship has led to gridlock in the legislature. The state has been consistently late in passing its budget, causing the state to issue IOUs and resort to tricky bookkeeping to pay the bills. Many attribute this polarization and refusenik politics to the way in which state and congressional district lines are drawn.
The consequences of this, some say, are dire. Congress has become more polarized since the 1970s with party line voting, voter resentment of “career politicians,” and what David Mayhew calls “congressional stagnation.” This is most striking because it is not at all clear that Americans are as polarized as the Congresses they elect. If California’s new election commission gets it right, this type of bimodal voting in the state legislature and House will diminish as districts become more balanced and elections more competitive.
Pushing a rock
For Representatives Gallegly and Capps, this means that 2012 will be a whole new ballgame. Gallegly’s former district contained six percent more Republicans than Democrats. Capps’s had 19 percent more Democrats than Republicans. But under the new configuration, most of the former 23rd district territory will be incorporated into a new 24th district, and the new 23rd district will move far inland taking bits from several other districts.These changes will dramatically alter voting populations.The new 24th district will be narrowly Democratic, but will assume a more balanced composition of voters. The iconic Morro Rock and surrounding sleepy bed-and-breakfasts will now lie in the same district as large inland cities like Santa Maria and rural towns like Santa Ynez. In order to win a closely divided district such as this, both candidates will presumably have to attenuate their views to gain voters at the margins. Time will tell if this new attempt at settling a centuries-old problem will fall to futility as others have.
While the objective of competitive elections may be realized through redistricting, unintended consequences loom. Candidates running tight races may rely more heavily on wealthy donors with greater special interest influence. Overall fundraising will increase with the possibility that candidates will pander to those positions that will allow them to raise the most money. According to Thad Kousser, a political scientist at UC San Diego, “Winning a competitive district takes money more than it takes moderation.” While the ostensible outcome of a competitive district is that candidates move toward the center in an effort to attract moderate voters, the money factor might offset this effect.
Another result is equally undesirable. The state as a whole stands to lose clout in the House if ranking members from California lose in their newly-competitive districts. Several serve on influential committees such as Foreign Affairs, Rules, Administration, and Immigration. The Golden State might have more rocky road ahead as its experiment in direct democracy takes unexpected turns.
Regardless of whether new district lines reduce partisan rancor and intransigence, there is now more fodder for the “American Exceptionalism” debate. Socrates would be proud.
Brett Piersma is a first-year student at William & Mary Law School.