Wednesday, November 12, 2008


One of the less-noticed ballot measures we Californians voted in last Tuesday was a proposal to take the power of creating the boundaries for state legislative districts away from the state legislature and give it to a bi-partisan commission. Gerrymandered districts have been rightly criticized for making it extremely difficult to remove incumbents from office, and thereby engendering a sense of complacency and non-reponsiveness from our elected representatives. Some believe that the security of representing a district that is skewed to contain a majority of your supporters also makes legislators more intransigent and unwilling to compromise. I supported this proposition for all of these reasons.

It should be noted, however, that it is impossible to draw district lines without taking into consideration the political consequences of doing so. Even a completely politics-blind drawing, that is designed only to create the most compact possible districts, will have a political effect, most likely the effect of over-representing the majority party, and under-representing the minority party. In other words, almost any way you draw a district line can be considered a gerrymander, because those lines will have discernible political consequences.

One might also question how much impact this measure will have in light of the term limits already in effect in the California State Legislature. To me, it would make more sense to introduce this kind of insecurity in the ability of legislators to get re-elected, in conjunction with a repeal or extension of term limits. That way, voters have the ability to retain their elected representative, but that representative would also face more competitive elections every cycle.

We should also recognize that creating more swing districts, which is generally a good thing because it allows the will of the voters to be more quickly felt in the legislature, also has the undesirable effect of substantially increasing the cost of running for election. A representative of a swing district must fight for his seat at the expiration of every term, and that costs a lot of money. So by fixing one problem, we may be exacerbating another. This year's election cycle might cause us to look more closely at the enormous costs of running for office, at the presidential and congressional and state levels. We might ask whether it is a good idea to shorten the campaign season, or whether it is a good idea to require the networks to provide some free air time for political commercials, or other reforms that would reduce the potentially corrupting force of money in politics.

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