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California steps forward



Published: Tue, August 23, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Washington Post: The recent decision by the California Supreme Court to restore a ballot measure to reform the state's redistricting process gives California voters the chance to send a critical message in November. The initiative, part of a reform package being pushed by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, had been stricken from the special election ballot by a lower court because of technical disparities between a version circulated among voters and a version given to the state attorney general.

If passed, it would replace the state's corrupt system for drawing state and federal legislative districts with a cleaner one in which a panel of retired judges -- rather than the very politicians who have to run for office -- would draw lines without regard for protecting incumbents. By passing it, California voters not only would clean up their own system but could spur reform elsewhere as well.

The initiative is not perfect. It not only creates a redistricting regime for use after each decennial census; the new system is implemented immediately -- in the middle of a census cycle.

Unlike the Texas mid-cycle redistricting, which Republicans undertook purely for partisan gain, California's would represent a genuine and valuable reform. But it would still legitimize the unfortunate principle that the Texas episode established -- that the drawing of district lines is fair game whenever one political bloc has the strength to reopen them, not just when new census data becomes available every 10 years.

Huge accomplishment

Still, warts and all, passing the initiative would be a huge accomplishment. The advent of high-powered computing has made the old art of gerrymandering into a corruptly exact science. The result is that ever-more seats in state legislatures and in the House of Representatives have become safe for one party or the other.

Many House elections are no longer even contested, so remote is the possibility of unseating an incumbent. In California's last election, as Schwarzenegger noted in a speech earlier this year, not a single one of 153 state or federal legislative seats changed party hands. "What kind of democracy is that?" the governor memorably asked.




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