Friday, November 28, 2008

A Good Start in California?

Other than the election of Barack Obama, arguably the most frequently noted event of election day 2008 was the passage of Proposition 8 in California, which declared that it was illegal for two persons of the same sex to constitute a marriage. While the passage of that amendment was notable, it arguably will have less long term impact than another referendum passed by California voters, Proposition 11. That measure requires state legislative districts to be drawn by an independent commission, not by legislators choosing who they want to vote for them.

When legislators draw districts in such a way as to reduce their competitiveness, the result is more highly ideological and less accountable legislators. That is why changing that process is the most important political reform of our time.

Gerrymandering -- the name given to the practice of drawing districts in ways that protect incumbents -- has a long, disreputable history in the United States. In recent years, it erupted as a major issue in Texas politics in 2003 when Democratic senators, seeking to avoid a quorum that would allow Republicans to redraw districts, holed up in hotels in Oklahoma and New Mexico.

Thus, Republicans in the majority in Texas loved having the ability to gerrymander. Of course, they partly relished that power because they had previously been victimized by Democratic majorities engaging in it. In California, Republicans led the ballot measure to stop the practice, and they prevailed in spite of an array of Democratic establishment interest groups in opposition. That tendency of whoever is in the majority to disapprove is a reminder of a previous reform measure hotly debated in the previous decade. In the 1990's, Republicans lead efforts to impose term limits until they achieved majorities in Congress and had the power to adopt them. At that point, they decided that term limits weren't such an important reform after all. The ability to retain power trumped principle at that point.

They were wrong about that, and the political class of whichever party will be wrong to oppose gerrymandering. That is why it is important for civic minded voters of both parties to support it.


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