Redistricting Reform May Be on the March in Three Big States

Posted September 12, 2005 at 6:42pm

LOS ANGELES — With initiatives to reform redistricting expected to make the 2005 ballot in California and Ohio, and another for 2006 gaining traction in Florida, the ultimate insider issue has suddenly become hot in three of the nation’s most populous states.

But those who thrive on map-drawing minutiae wonder whether such an arcane issue can resonate with ordinary voters.[IMGCAP(1)]

“Most voters don’t even know what districts they live in, much less who drew the boundaries, so they don’t relate to it,” said Garry South, a veteran Democratic strategist in California. His California GOP counterpart, Dan Schnur, concurred, saying, “Under normal circumstances, it’s impossible to pass. It’s too abstract.”

Still, strategists say the pivotal wild card is frustration with politics as usual. If such a mood exists, and if it is channeled effectively, it can put a dry issue like redistricting over the top, said Kristina Wilfore, executive director of the liberal Ballot Initiative Strategy Center.

And in these three states at least, the political conditions may be riper than normal.

In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), who coasted into office amid mass disaffection with his Democratic predecessor, has staked his prestige on the redistricting measure and other reforms.

In Ohio, a metastasizing political scandal involving Gov. Bob Taft (R) and the state Republican Party is producing anger and volatility in a state long dominated by the GOP.

And Florida, like Ohio, has been home to a divisive presidential election in which residents aired a torrent of allegations about how partisanship may have influenced vote counting.

The Ohio measure, which would create a judicially appointed independent redistricting panel, has the most momentum, thanks to the rising tide of political disaffection.

The proposal’s chief proponent, a predominantly Democratic group called Reform Ohio Now, secured roughly 500,000 signatures, easily exceeding the 322,000 required to place the measure on the ballot. (It is expected to share ballot space with proposals for expanded mail-in balloting, reduced donation limits to candidates and a nonpartisan state elections board.)

“There is tremendous energy, excitement and interest in all of the reform amendments,” said Cleveland-based Democratic consultant Jeff Rusnack. “Ohioans are looking for real changes that will hold the politicians accountable. Changing the redistricting process is one way to do this.”

Herb Asher, an adviser to Reform Ohio Now and political scientist at Ohio State University, said the group knows the issue is hard to explain in 30-second TV spots, so its goal is to skip the mechanics and focus on big themes.

“You tell voters, ‘Hey, we all believe in competition for business and schools, so how about competition in our elections? How about making legislators be more attentive to their own districts?’” Asher said. “By saying something that simple, it captures people’s attention.”

Asher predicts that if the proponents can pick off one-third of the GOP electorate — not an unreasonable number given today’s anti-Republican environment — then the measure should prevail.

Ohio First, a largely Republican group, opposes it. Beyond challenging the measure in court, Ohio First asks whether the proposal is as fair as its sponsors contend, said former Ohio Senate President Richard Finan (R), a Cincinnati lawyer affiliated with Ohio First.

“The argument is, ‘Yes, we might need some reform to our method of redistricting, but this is certainly not the way to do it,’” he said. The measure, “is strictly slanted toward one side.”

In Ohio, as elsewhere, partisanship is never far from the surface. Indeed, critics have noted the irony that more than two decades ago, the state’s then-dominant Democratic Party successfully blocked a GOP-backed redistricting reform effort.

In Florida, a narrowly divided state with a heavily Republican Congressional delegation, signature-gatherers are working to place a redistricting measure on the 2006 ballot. While it’s too soon to gauge its level of support — already, one facet of the reform package has been thrown out for exceeding the ballot-summary limit by six words — the proposal’s sponsors have one key factor on their side.

“Florida has been very inclined to pass constitutional amendments in the past decade,” said Aubrey Jewett, a political scientist at the University of Central Florida, citing a range of recently passed measures that span the ideological spectrum, including those protecting pregnant pigs, banning smoking, restricting net fishing, publicizing doctors’ mistakes, cutting contingency fees for lawyers and raising the minimum wage. “If the petitions do get on the ballot, I think the odds of passage are good.”

Ironically, California, a trailblazer on the issue since Schwarzenegger’s election, now seems to offer the longest odds of passage.

Schwarzenegger’s proposal, which would hand redistricting duties to a nonpartisan group of judges, received just 32 percent support in a late-August Field poll, compared to 46 percent who were opposed and 22 percent undecided.

While the challenges facing the California measure mirror those in other states, Schwarzenegger’s larger-than-life persona may have shaped public perceptions more than anything — on balance, negatively.

As Schwarzenegger’s tone has become more partisan, his popularity has dropped among Democrats and independents — and the redistricting measure has suffered. It now fares even worse in recent polls than Schwarzenegger himself. Field’s late-August trial heats showed the governor losing to his two likeliest Democratic challengers.

If Schwarzenegger had framed the issue properly and worked with Democrats consistently and publicly, Schnur and South agree, the effort could have won broad support. As a celebrity with cross-party appeal, the governor could have made it a compelling pox-on-both-your-houses issue.

“The thing about initiatives is that you don’t have to explain the details,” said Elizabeth Garrett, a University of Southern California law professor who studies ballot initiatives. “It’s all about symbolic significance. And a take-back-the-government message could have worked.”

Now, however, South said that “if a 35 percent governor passes a 35 percent ballot measure, I’ll eat my hat.”

The main beacon of hope for redistricting reformers is Arizona, which passed a statewide ballot measure to create a redistricting commission in 2000.

Two months before Election Day, the measure had just 43 percent support in the polls, recalled Bob Grossfeld, a Democratic consultant in Scottsdale, Ariz. Then, he said, proponents seized on opposition by the state’s dominant GOP, enabling undecided voters to “connect the dots” about who benefited from the status quo.

“It was one of the first examples of how populism can trump conservatism,” Grossfeld said. “Simply put, the campaign converted more than 25 years of government-is-the-problem rhetoric by conservatives into a double-digit win.”

Phoenix-based GOP lobbyist Stuart Goodman agreed that a well-funded, well-run campaign offered “an appealing message.”

“The general population is not focused on the political implications of redistricting, but they unquestionably appreciate the importance of fair and competitive elections,” Goodman said.

Rep. John Tanner (D-Tenn.), who’s sponsoring a redistricting reform bill in the House, agrees that the broader principle of fair play resonates among rank-and-file voters even when they know little about his legislation.

“The people back home are talking about the partisanship they see in Washington, and they’re pleased to see Congressman Tanner trying to work on that,” said Tanner’s spokesman, Randy Ford.