Prop. 1: Democracy

Posted November 5, 2004 at 3:12pm

We’re not particularly fond of the state referendum process. We much prefer representative democracy, and some decisions imposed by ballot initiative — such as California’s Prop. 13, limiting property taxes, and Prop. 98, expanding school funding — often make governing a more intractable process.

That said, we propose that political reformers immediately go to the 21 states where referenda are permitted in order to save representative democracy from its Representatives.

As The Washington Post put it well in an editorial last week (“Scandal in the House,” Nov. 4), we now have a Congressional redistricting system in which “politicians choose their voters rather than the other way around.” Guided by Washington operatives and aided by computers and sophisticated precinct data, state legislatures almost everywhere draw district lines each 10 years (and, in some places, even more often) that are designed to limit voters’ choice to the incumbent party.

The results were as clear as day this year. Of 435 House districts, only 35 featured truly competitive races — a pathetic 8 percent. Only seven incumbents were defeated this year — four of them in Texas as a result of the latest gerrymander, instigated by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R). To be fair, Texas Democrats were equally capable of drawing lines to suit their own needs, especially under the leadership of one of the 2004 casualties, Rep. Martin Frost. But at least they waited for 10-year intervals.

In this year’s House “races” (such as they were), 95 percent were decided by margins of more than 10 percent. No less than 83 percent were decided by 20 percent or more. This means that, to the extent that voters had any say in who represents them in Congress, it was a minority who took part in party primaries.

And that, in turn, contributes strongly to the poisonous partisanship that prevails on Capitol Hill. To avoid challenges back home, Republicans need to be more conservative and Democrats need to be more liberal. Is it any wonder that, when they get to Washington, they are in a permanent state of war?

There is an answer to this outrageous situation. It is for the states to establish nonpartisan reapportionment entities like Iowa’s Legislative Service Bureau, which redraws districts each 10 years that are specifically designed to produce compact districts that adhere to county lines, without reference to demographics or voting patterns. This has resulted in a high rate of competitive, spirited House races, even though actual Member turnover has been small.

But this task cannot be left to state legislatures, which are filled with politicians dedicated to serving their parties (or themselves, as potential Members of Congress) ahead of their citizens. The best role for ballot initiatives in our democracy is to serve as a fourth branch of government — another check and balance in cases where politicians resolutely choose the private good over the public good. Redistricting is a perfect case study.

Arizona established a reapportionment commission by referendum in 2000. In California this year, reformers fell short of obtaining sufficient signatures to put the issue on the ballot, but they are working to do so for upcoming statewide primaries in June. Campaign reform has focused over the past four years on finance and convenience. Now, it’s time to turn to what politics is supposed to be all about: voter choice.