Thursday, November 10, 2005

Next Time, Start With the People

Guest Blogger

Heather Gerken

Christopher Elmendorf

Tuesday’s defeat of redistricting ballot initiatives in California and Ohio was a wake-up call for reformers, who are pressing a nationwide campaign to strip politicians of the power to draw electoral districts. California's Proposition 77, which would have vested line-drawing responsibilities in an independent commission composed of three retired judges, was rejected by six out of ten voters. Ohio's Issue 4 similarly lost by a significant margin. Yet polls show that large majorities of Republicans and Democrats agree that it is a bad idea for the legislature and the governor to make decisions about redistricting. What’s going on?

“Independence” sounds great in the abstract, but voters are well aware that purportedly neutral reforms may stack the deck against one side. The devil’s in the details, and the details can be fiendishly difficult for overburdened voters to figure out. As a result, people often vote based on simple cues, like who’s pushing for enactment. Democrats in California saw that Prop. 77’s most ardent advocate was Governor Schwarzenegger and voted no, much as Republican voters in Ohio rejected the nonpartisan redistricting mechanism designed by "Reform Ohio Now," a group whose name never appeared in press without the obligatory qualifier, “a coalition of unions and Democratic leaning groups.” Ironically, reformers who diagnosed redistricting as infected by politics and set out to cure it found themselves accused of being carriers of the same disease. This accusation proved deadly.

Yet reformers need to play politics if they’re to have a realistic chance of winning. It’s through the campaigning of interest groups and politicians that voters learn about proposed reforms and obtain the cues they need to decide how to vote. Moreover, political give-and-take plays an important role in ensuring a sensible and viable proposal in the first place. California reformers did too little politicking before putting Prop. 77 on the ballot. Two months ago they paid the price: groups representing Latinos and Asian Americans announced their opposition to the initiative, arguing that a redistricting commission composed of three retired judges could not reflect California’s diversity, and criticizing Prop. 77’s failure to include “respect for communities of interest” on the list of districting criteria. Had reformers solicited input from these groups before the initiative’s language was set in stone, a compromise could have been reached.

Is there a way for reformers to play politics as they must, while warding off the accusation of political infection? We would suggest taking a page from the playbook of our neighbors to the North. First in British Columbia and now in Ontario, basic electoral reform problems are being put to citizens’ assemblies, groups consisting of over a hundred randomly selected citizens who hear out competing presentations from experts and the concerns of interest groups and fellow citizens. If the citizens’ assembly reaches agreement on a proposed reform, it is submitted to the electorate for a referendum vote.

The citizens’ assembly represents an elegant solution to the dilemma of electoral reform. The assembly’s blessing insulates champions of reform from the charge that they’re playing politics with the ground rules of democracy -- precisely the charges levied in California and Ohio. Such accusations simply aren’t credible once the assembly -- ­the voice of the people, in microcosm­ -- has carefully considered the alternatives and recommended a course of action. Also important is that the assembly’s decision-making process accommodates give and take, enabling compromises to be hashed out and oversights corrected before a proposal reaches the ballot. Finally, the backing of the citizens' assembly could provide a useful cue for voters -- the democratic version of the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. In short, the citizens’ assembly offers a kind of political inoculation for reformers’ ideas. It introduces a little bit of politics into the reform process, while guarding against its worst excesses.

The strengths of the citizens’ assembly are vividly apparent when electoral reform is on the table, but this model for direct democracy might well prove salutary in many other settings. Consider California's experience with direct democracy. Ballot initiatives were supposed to provide an outlet for popular lawmaking, but today most Californians believe that special interests have wrested control of the initiative process. A California Citizens’ Assembly would make it possible for average people to regain some measure of influence over what appears on the ballot, while its “blessing” would give voters a good reason to vote in favor of a given proposal. And for politicians who profess to speak for the people themselves, what could be better than to serve as the Assembly’s mouthpiece?


Nice post.

That said, you should have stayed well away from suggesting 77's drafters merely "failed to include" respect or other criteria. A quick skim of the law should have been all it took: that monstrosity was not written by a reformer, it was written by a coldblooded right-wing apparatchik.

The sections at which to look are 2f and 2g, which manadate the contiguity of counties and cities, and compactnes, respectively. In California, as in all of the rest of North America, conservative voters are a slim majority in most geographical areas, and liberal voters are supermajorities in urban cores. The result of 2f and 2g would have been to enshrine a conservative gerrymander in the state constitution.

The sort of person who writes that -- and who, very specifically, places county contiguity foremost (calling Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Alameda, y'all) -- has zero interest in reform. That person is interested in power for him and his.

I guarantee that if the story of the drafting of Prop 77 is ever told, you'll feel slightly abashed you chose it, and not R-O-N, as your hypothetical.

I would have voted for real redistricting in California. Instead, I found 77 to be *worse* than the current gerrymander, and that's saying a lot.

Ugh, ptui. And you seem so smart. What were you kids thinking?

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