Schwarzenegger’s Anti-Gerrymandering Plan
Worried about losing clout in Congress, influential Republicans in Washington are telling Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger that he should drop his effort to redraw congressional voting districts in time for next year’s elections and limit his focus to reshaping the state Legislature. National Republican Party leaders Ã¢€” even Schwarzenegger’s closest ally in the congressional delegation, U.S. Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas) Ã¢€” are pressing the governor to exempt Congress from his map-making. The fear is that tinkering with the California congressional boundaries could jeopardize Republican control of the U.S. House. By some estimates, the state’s 20-person GOP congressional delegation opposes the governor’s effort 4 to 1.
The Republican backlash underscores a reality of redistricting: What’s most important to incumbents is ensuring their own survival. Even with California Republicans confined to minority status in both the legislative and congressional delegations, many members would rather keep the existing lines than gamble on a plan that could plunk them in unfriendly districts where they would have trouble getting reelected.
Schwarzenegger’s plan is to strip the Legislature of the power to redraw voting districts and give the job to a panel of retired judges. In theory, the judges would be less guided by partisan concerns.
Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman has told the governor’s aides that he would like to see California’s congressional voting districts untouched until after the 2010 census Ã¢€” the normal timetable for the decennial redrawing of voting districts Ã¢€” according to a person close to the Schwarzenegger administration. Tracey Schmitt, an RNC spokeswoman, declined to discuss such a conversation, saying, “We’re still in the information-gathering stage.”
Gerrymandering safe seats has been done for most of the Republic’s history and has always survived judicial scrutiny, so long as each district is roughly equal in population and race isn’t a major factor in the drawing of lines. Schwarzenegger’s motivation here is far from pure–he’s essentially trying to create a system that will help him enact his own agenda, even if it results in diminution of his party’s influence at the national level. Mehlman is also right that, absent extraordinary circumstances, custom dictates redrawing the lines only after reapportionment.
Still, I have to agree with Kevin Drum that modern computer-assisted gerrymandering has had negative consequences for our political system. Having partisan legislatures supervise the drawing of lines for maximum advantage has pernicious consequences and has certainly contributed to the increased level of partisan rancor in Congress. When all seats are safe, so long as one tows the party line, elections become less meaningful. Further, it almost guarantees that rabid ideologues will fill most seats, making consensus building increasingly difficult.