Proposition 77

It is my intention occasionally to offer thoughts about some of the propositions on which Californians will be asked to vote this November and provide a forum for discussion of the issues. Today I take up Proposition 77, the redistricting initiative.


The California Constitution calls upon the California Legislature to redraw the boundaries for the districts used to elect public officials with each decennial population census. With modern geographic data bases and analytical tools, it is possible to draw those boundaries in such a way that one can be highly confident about the electoral outcome. The map at the right shows the current boundaries that are in place for the San Francisco Bay area for purposes of electing representatives to the California State Senate. Some have suggested that the primary justification for such odd shapes is to guarantee the re-election of the incumbents who drew up those boundaries in 2001.

If that was the intention, it was certainly successful.
Supporters of Proposition 77 point out
that of the 153 congressional and state legislative races on the California ballot in November 2004, not a single seat changed parties. It’s interesting to compare that statistic with the results of the latest Field poll, which found only a 27% approval rate for the California State Legislature among California voters. Professor Peter Gordon opines:

When the re-election of California legislature incumbents hits 100% while the approval ratings of the same people hovers between 20% and 30%, disenfranchisement by high-tech redistricting is suspect.

Another consequence of guaranteed safe districts has been the polarization of California politics. Since the winner in the primary of the party for which that district was designed is guaranteed to win the general election, and since the voters in the primaries tend to be farther from the center of their own party than voters in the general election, the result is that the elected representatives tend to be either significantly more liberal or significantly more conservative than the typical voter of their district.

Proposition 77 would have the Legislature select a panel of 3 retired judges who could receive input from the Legislature and the public and then propose district boundaries. Their proposal would have to respect certain limitations, such as population differences across districts cannot exceed 1 percent, Senate districts would have to be comprised of two adjacent Assembly districts, and the plan must minimize the splitting of counties and cities into multiple districts. The panel’s recommendations would determine the boundaries for one election cycle, but would have to be approved by a popular vote in order to remain in effect beyond that cycle.

What are the arguments against this idea? Fair Vote observes:

Merely handing over the drawing of district lines to a panel of retired judges will not produce competitive districts. Recent studies of the impact of independent redistricting commissions in Arizona, Iowa and elsewhere show that these commissions have had minimal success in increasing competition in these states.

Hence a theme of opponents of the measure is that it would just be a waste of money. Doubtless it’s out of a desire to save taxpayer money that two California Congressmen (a Democrat and a Republican) are seeking to raise money to help fund the campaign against Prop 77, rather than because they’re afraid that in fact it actually might have some effects.

A more compelling objection comes from Cal Politic (whose analysis was also highlighted at Daily Kos):

Schwarzenegger’s plan takes advantage of the geographic phenomenon that voters in urban centers vote heavily Democratic. In contrast, outlying suburban and rural areas lean Republican….By requiring judges to draw a redistricting map that emphasizes compact districts incorporating entire cities, the criteria in Prop 77 literally corrals Democrats into urban districts. These districts could be as much as 80% Democratic.

Though the League of Women Voters seems to share this fear, I, like Daniel Weintraub (hat tip: Lone Wacko) am unconvinced. Let me point out that if one’s objective is to “corral” voters into any particular category you might care to specify, I guarantee that I can do so far more effectively if you let me draw the boundaries according to the rather loose rules of the game that seem to apply for the map reproduced above than I can if I’m forced to adhere to any specified set of principles. I think it would be rather hard for the process laid out in the initiative to result in the kind of outcome that Cal Politic fears, whereas such shenanigans are guaranteed under the current system. If you’re out to corral people, what you do, as in the present system, is use one set of boundaries for Assembly districts and a different set of boundaries for Senate districts, rather than go with the simple idea that two adjacent Assembly districts constitute one Senate district.

I’m guessing that the real passion for the opposition to Prop 77 comes not from those who are persuaded by the inherent fairness or appropriateness of the present boundaries, but rather from those who are basically pleased with the practical outcome despite what surely must be for most people a distaste for the inharmonious process from which that outcome was rendered. Because I don’t find myself among the 27% of Californians who are pleased with the performance of our state legislature, I’m open to the suggestion that the redistricting process could be substantially improved. I intend to vote “yes” on Proposition 77.

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14 thoughts on “Proposition 77

  1. Hal

    Redistricting is a hard problem, because it is hard to agree on what constitutes a fair assignment of the districts. I don’t see that it is necessarily wrong to assign districts so that most people in a district are happy with their representative! Would it really be better to set up a situation where close to 50% of the people are unhappy with who is representing them?
    Which would you rather have, a 50-50 chance that your representative will do the opposite of what you want, or a 60-40 chance that he will agree with you philosophically? It seems that the present system is more likely to lead to the latter alternative.
    The big danger with redistricting is setting up a bunch of districts that are 55-45 in favor of party A, and others that are 90-10 in favor of party B. That exaggerates the influence of party A. As long as you avoid this, and it sounds like the present system does, I’d say it is arguably fair.

  2. Chris Snively

    I remember two years ago reading a book by Dick Morris about the plan Iowa put in place to redraw the districts because of the census. The panel could look at the population numbers, not previous voting records or anything else and draw the districts. As a result something like 9 out of 10 races were close. Now that was Iowa, not exactly a jewel politically. I would love something like that in Texas where I live.

  3. Rob M

    In most redistricing the object is for the party in control to maintain their control and spread their ablitiy to be competive in other marginal districts. That comes at a cost to the minor party. It seems that in California both parties worked together for incumbent protection since party control was not an issue.
    Redistricting does have the posibility to give you wide swings in representation, depending on the goal of the person or people drawing the lines.
    I doubt that the system under the amendment will, in the end, be a net difference from the current system, in terms of time and money. But in terms of political capitol, it could cause some difference. But one thing is clear, it can’t be any worse of a system.

  4. dryfly

    Chris – I do business in Iowa, lived there… know the place pretty well… it is almost as homogenous as whole milk.
    There are VERY few solidly partisan strongholds anywhere in the state… a few but very few.
    Iowa is NOT a good analogy for Cali or Texas… Not even for states like Nebraska or Kansas (with at least one VERY dominant urban center).

  5. dryfly

    I am not trying to down play the issue of redistricting… but a lot of the ‘non-competetive races’ are more a result of voter apathy than anything and it works both ways… left & right.
    You read about GOP strategist’s amazement that blacks & urban poor continue to vote Democratic no matter how hard GOP candidates campaign in those districts & how little the Dem’s really offer in solutions…
    Likewise you read about how rock-solidly rural poor whites vote GOP no matter how hard the Dems campaign in their strong holds… also in the face of how little the GOP really does for them.
    When & if the SHTF… that will be the test. That is when some of these economic imbalances break free… Then I think a lot of those so called safe districts will show their ‘true color’ and not be very safe… and the morons of both parties… a solid voting block majority… will learn the hard way that ignoring good policy for immediate political advantage has it’s price.
    These kinds of shake ups do NOT happen often but when they do they set the tone for a generation or more… we are heading to another shake up and I have no idea how it will go… much harder & more conservative or far more liberal & progressive. I have concerns with both extremes & wish there was a wiser path but don’t believe it is there… not now, not yet.

  6. CalculatedRisk

    First, a few numbers: In the ’04 Assembly elections, 55% of voters voted Democrat and Democrats won 60% of the seats – definitely less than I would expect. Obviously there is “clumping” of voters by party. Compare that result to a President with a 55% majority; he would win 80%+ of the States.
    In 17 Assembly seats, the winner received over 75% of the votes. Sixteen of these seats were Democrat. Clearly the League of Women voters concern about “corraling” of Democrats is valid.
    Now look at the actual text of Prop 77: “Not more than 12 of the 24 retired judges may be of a single party affiliation, and the two largest political parties in California shall be equally represented among the nominated retired judges.”
    I’m a Republican and I can see that isn’t fair. With 55% of the State voting Democrat, why do the Republicans get the same represenatation? And it gets worse. The next mechanism (nominating by majority and minority leaders) favors the GOP even more. (Perhaps I’ll write a post on why).
    This is a terrible Prop and I recommend everyone vote NO.

  7. Joseph Somsel

    I’m a Rock-Ribbed Republican ™ (anyone surprised?) and I’m all for Prop 77 but not because it might be anti-Democratic Party.
    I’m for it because the California Republican Party is a bunch of losers. These guys are ideologues who would rather be “pure” than have a constructive influence on governing. Their conventions remind me of a Trekkie get-together, only for wonks!
    Creating districts that are grouped on contiguous areas of levelized populations might not be a panacea but it is a pragmatic step in the right direction. I’ll take it.
    I remember Barbara Boxer’s first Congressional district – old-money Marin (Ross), Pacific Heights (SF, home to the Getty’s, et al), and Hunter’s Point (black ghetto in SF). Yea, that’s fair!
    The California Republicans need to get out of their strongholds and mix it up with the rest of the state; maybe they’ll come up with a clue as to how to sell voters on better government, rather than “best” government.
    We Republicans need candidates who understand the “Art of Governance;” not necessarily the “Theology of Government.”

  8. Jonathan Lundell

    FairVote’s argument goes a little farther than simply that 77 is a waste of money. Rather, it’s tinkering at the margins of a badly broken system, and that moving to a proportional representation system is necessary to fix the underlying problem.
    Multimember districts are necessary for real reform, and to really enfranchise voters regardless of how the overall district is split between the major parties.

  9. Hal

    Here’s another example. I live in California’s 23rd congressional district, which you can see on the map here,
    The district is not geographically contiguous, in fact it is composed of a narrow strip of coastal land, in some places apparently just a few yards wide, that extends from Ventura up to the Big Sur area, nearly 200 miles long. This is often pointed out as an example of undesirable gerrymandering.
    But to me it makes sense, because coastal communities have common interests and common perspectives on issues. Would it really be better to create districts that mix the agricultural interests of the inland regions with the coastal areas, where one side will doubtless be more populous than the other and effectively leave the citizens of the smaller community without a voice?
    As it is, we in this coastal district have a representative who is very strong in her support for environmental issues, including questions of development, pollution, offshore oil drilling, and related issues which are all highly controversial these days. The great majority of people in this district are happy with their representation and in fact the seat is very safe for Democrats.
    A system which makes people happy with their political representation seems to me to be a desirable outcome. It’s true that this tends to create safe districts for the parties, but I still don’t see why that is bad a priori. People are being represented and that’s what counts.

  10. Clay Blankenship

    Why not have districts drawn by a computer algorithm, which takes a population maps and draws the simplest possible districts according to some predefined metric (e.g. shortest total perimeter)?

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