Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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February 26, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

SMOKE-FILLED ROOMS....As I've mentioned before, California is on the verge of moving its presidential primary date to February 5. But it turns out there's more than presidential politics involved in the move. We're also going to have a pair of initiatives on the primary ballot: one that allows an independent commission to draw legislative districts and one that extends the length of term limits from 6 years to 12. Scott Schmidt explains the timing:

If you wonder why these measures cannot be on the regular June 2008 ballot, you're missing the point of the whole early primary exercise. The deadline to file for office for the June election falls in March. Sitting incumbents whose terms are scheduled to end in 2008, like [Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez], need a ballot measure approved and certified before that March deadline. Thus, we get an early presidential primary with a ballot initiative attached.

....But the redistricting measure under discussion wouldn't go into effect until the first election cycle after the next census, which is, coincidentally, four years after the November 2008 election.

Essentially, California would have no real elections over the next four years, because we would have the same people running in the same districts where there is no competition.

Clever! But I have to say that this doesn't bother me all that much. Offering longer term limits in exchange for redistricting reform has pretty much always been the deal on the table, so this is hardly unexpected. In fact, allowing it to apply to current officeholders, with only a few weeks to spare, might give it just the sense of urgency needed to actually get it passed.

And what if it doesn't pass? Sure, the old doofuses will get termed out, but we'll just end up with new doofuses in the same old noncompetitive districts. Frankly, four more years of the old doofuses doesn't really seem like all that big a price to pay in the grand scheme of things if we get a decent anti-gerrymandering bill in return. And I'm in favor of the longer term limits anyway.

Still, you have to admire the behind-the-scenes shenanigans.

Kevin Drum 11:21 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

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Comments

I'm with Kevin in hoping for an anti-gerrymandering measure. He describes this as a tradeoff with an extention of the term limits period. But, as I understand it, those will be two separate ballot proposition. It's possible that CA voters will approve the anti-gerrymandering and disapprove the term limits extension. (Or they may do the reversse -- ugh!)

In fact, I believe these two items would have to be separate propositions, because of the requirement that propositions address a single topic.

Posted by: ex-liberal on February 26, 2007 at 11:59 AM | PERMALINK

Hm. Admire isn't the word I would have chosen. These elections aren't free; each one costs the state real dollars.

On the subject of a commission to draw legislative districts; I assume that "independent" means "bipartisan". I think that a truly independent commission could be formed by using the geography professors from across the California university system.

If nothing else, the capabilities of the geography departments could be used to draw up three or four close-to-perfect district options for a commission composed of retired Democratic and Republican politicians to decide among. I mean, we're paying for the universities in any case.

Posted by: Wapiti on February 26, 2007 at 12:01 PM | PERMALINK

Independent may or may not mean bipartisan; it's too early to judge, as the papers don't appear to be sitting at the AG's office yet.

As for the election cost: one of the things we learned from the March primary, when we had it, is that having the statewide primary that early is bad; nobody is paying attention to the statewide races at that time, and it makes the statewide election cycle too long.

Some other states do things like put their state primary in September and the Presidential primary in the spring; we should follow that model.

Posted by: aphrael on February 26, 2007 at 12:10 PM | PERMALINK
Essentially, California would have no real elections over the next four years

And you called the Times report "breathless"?

They'd be elections under the exact same rules that have governed California elections have been run under for quite some time, except that no one would be termed out in that four year window (as no one termed out for decades under the system prior to term limits, which are a fairly recent alteration that hasn't made California elections any more competitive than they were before.)

Further, there is no evidence that an "independent" commission would actually make electoral districts more competitive, and its arguable that districts engineered deliberaely to be more competitive would, anyhow, be less effectively representative (a "more competitive" district, in a single-member plurality system, is one engineered to maximize the number of voters who are "represented" by someone who is nearly diametrically opposed to their own preferences.)

Four more years of the old doofuses doesn't really seem like all that big a price to pay in the grand scheme of things if we get a decent anti-gerrymandering bill in return.

There is absolutely no good way to draw lines in single-member plurality districts when you don't have clear, politically homogenous compact geographical subunits to start with.

The only "decent" solution to gerrymandering is to really open up the electoral landscape with a proportional election system using preference voting in multimember districts (small, say 5-member, multimember districts work for this.)

Its also a better solution to the problem term limits are designed to address, as well, since it encourages political parties to run more candidates than they are likely to win seats, which means that even in districts where the party has incumbents they'll be running alternative choices and the incumbents will face risk.

But as long as you are using plurality voting in single-member districts in California, you'll get poor representation, whether your districts are drawn by judges or legislators, whether they are engineered for safety or competitiveness,

Posted by: cmdicely on February 26, 2007 at 12:12 PM | PERMALINK
If nothing else, the capabilities of the geography departments could be used to draw up three or four close-to-perfect district options for a commission composed of retired Democratic and Republican politicians to decide among.

This assumes that there is such a thing as a "close to perfect" way to draw single-member plurality districts, which is the fundamental problem of all efforts to address the problems in districting by changing who draws the lines rather than addressing the real problem in the effects of the lines being drawn.

Posted by: cmdicely on February 26, 2007 at 12:16 PM | PERMALINK

These elections aren't free; each one costs the state real dollars.

Why do you and I seem to be the only people in California who realize this? While we're reforming, can we bump up the absurdly low barrier to propositions?

Term limits are a disaster. 12 years is a big improvement on 6.

Posted by: Cal on February 26, 2007 at 12:21 PM | PERMALINK

I don't understand gerrymandering in a computer age.

I think districts should be drawn by an optimizing, goal-seeking, open-source computer program that is code by a third party to various goals set out by a committee.

The goals themselves can be voted on by the electorate from one census to another and might include: balance size of district, balance population, balance income spreads, balance diversity, or even maximize incumbent advantage, maximize differences in districts, ... I don't care - I just think we should have open source goal seeking optimizing computer programs involved where the public votes on the goals.

Posted by: jerry on February 26, 2007 at 12:34 PM | PERMALINK

I think the short term limits are horrible. I've not been convinced that "anti-gerrymandering" legislation is all it's cracked up to be. We have models of so-called independent commissions that are just as bad--or worse--than what California has in place now (See, e.g. Arizona). I have yet to see a pro-resdistricting person address the problems with even independent districting commissions. Also, given the high reelection rate in the Senate, I'd say incumbency and money are more to blame for high reelection rates.

I'm not against redistricting on principle, but I'd like to see, as mentioned above, a discussion of the goals of any proposals. If the goal is just to get independent commissions, then fine, say so. But don't try to act like that, in itself, will make much of a difference.

Posted by: gq on February 26, 2007 at 1:17 PM | PERMALINK

Term limits (especially short ones)are and always were a terrible idea. As soon as legislators start getting a clue about how things work, they have to leave? It's a recipe for utter legislative incompetence- which here in term-limited Ohio has reached proportions that would be comic, except that they'e actually tragic given the dire economic condition of the state.

Posted by: Steve LaBonne on February 26, 2007 at 1:34 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin,
I have long argued that the plural of doofus is not doofuses, but doofi.

Posted by: swinty on February 26, 2007 at 1:40 PM | PERMALINK

No matter what, if I read both Kevin's summary & the LA Times article correctly, a no vote on the proposal to change the primary date is the best way to go. If this proposal can be avoided or defeated, sitting politicians would not be able to change the law for their own benefit. Who can argue that 8 year term limits have worked very well for Presidential elections & the states who have them? In any scenario, the two other propositions mentioned would necessarily have to be voted on separately, no matter when the vote is taken.

Now what constitutes an impartial body dividing voting districts? Even when the judges divided voting districts, half or more races had no opposition. Are University professors roughly equally divided across political lines? If so, great. If not, whoops! Perhaps a law could state voting districts be divided not to exceed 4 sides, along north-south & east west lines. For the doubters, it can be done.

And finally, who says the issues must come from the governor & legislature. Doesn't California have a voter initiative provision? If not, that should be the first issue decided. Voter pressure & the governor's support would insure getting that measure on the ballot.

I vote in Florida, so why should I care? Because reform that works in one state will eventually be adopted by others. Unlike other states, we have a provision for voter initiatives which can amend the state constitution. With a working model we might adopt a similar system here. If we had to depend on the legislature, it never would be.

Posted by: bob in fl on February 26, 2007 at 1:42 PM | PERMALINK

The California Senate would be a great place for a different kind of electoral reform. Divide the state into, say, eight districts: San Diego, Orange County, Los Angeles, Inland Empire, Central Coast, Bay Area, Central Valley, and North the smallest district having three million and the largest having seven or eight, assign one senator per million to the district. Allocate seats by share of vote. Multi-seat constituencies do have advantages, but people still want to have their own senator.

Posted by: freelunch on February 26, 2007 at 2:01 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin:

You understand math.

Why can't we set a mathematical formula to set Congressional districts?

Then whatever map scored the best would be the one used. It would be IMPOSSIBLE to gerrymander it.

Say you got points for a distict not having the exact average population; points for the circumference of each district; points for the greatest distance between any two points in a district; etc. Then the map with the fewest points would be picked.

You couldn't have a district that goes 30 miles down a highway to connect two Republican enclaves. You couldn't have 40 districts that were 55% democrats and the rest of the districts were 2% democrats. You couldn't do that because some other map would score better.

Also, it really shouldn't matter much what formula you use since you can't predict the 2010 census in 2008.

Seriously, why wouldn't a math formula work?

Posted by: neil wilson on February 26, 2007 at 2:37 PM | PERMALINK
Why can't we set a mathematical formula to set Congressional districts?

Because its not a particularly tractable optimization problem; given a fixed field of alternatives, of course, you can use a scoring system to select among them, but given a blank-slate state map and census data, optimizing based on any formula that reasonably encapsulates people's ideas of fair districting is rather difficult. Further, selecting what formula to use would be contentious even if the approach were practical because different priorities applied to reasonable expectations of growth can be expected to produce outcomes with different partisan advantages (for instance, the degree of weight put on either keeping together existing sub-state political units, an oft-cited desirable feature of a districting arrangement, may have considerable salience, consider that cities may be overwhelmingly Democratic while surrounding areas may be very slightly Republican: optimizing heavily for maintaining those units can promote having a few supermajority "safe" Democratic districts, but several more Republican-leaning districts than the Republican share of the population would justify.)

Also, it really shouldn't matter much what formula you use since you can't predict the 2010 census in 2008.

Having overestimated the power of optimization, you seem to also underestimated the power of demographic projections.

Seriously, why wouldn't a math formula work?

In addition to the notes above about practicality and competing priorities, there's also the problem I pointed out in my 12:12pm and 12:16pm posts that most of the sources of dissatisfaction people look to changing districting mechanisms to solve don't result from who draws the lines or how the lines are drawn, but simply from the single-member plurality system, and so changing the line-drawing won't actually address the problems people have.


Posted by: cmdicely on February 26, 2007 at 4:56 PM | PERMALINK

Term limits (especially short ones)are and always were a terrible idea. As soon as legislators start getting a clue about how things work, they have to leave?

Perhaps you're right, but doesn't it prompt the question as to why it should be so complex about how things work that it takes so long to "get a clue"?

I think the better answer may be to simplify the ways of the legislature, such that newly elected congresspersons can contribute meaningfully within a few months.

Posted by: pencarrow on February 26, 2007 at 6:07 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin: "Sure, the old doofuses will get termed out ..."

I believe that the correct plural term is doofi.

Posted by: Donald from Hawaii on February 26, 2007 at 6:52 PM | PERMALINK
Perhaps you're right, but doesn't it prompt the question as to why it should be so complex about how things work that it takes so long to "get a clue"?

Um, no.

Making intelligent decisions about legislation in a government of a jurisdiction that has a population in the neighborhood of 30 million and one of the largest economies in the world and a diverse population requires assimilating quite a bit of complicated knowledge and learning quite a lot. That's hardly surprising.

It probably doesn't help that new legislators are not-infrequently elected based in part on their distance from the process—being an “outsider”—and thus selected for lack of relevant experience, giving them that much more of a challenge in getting up to speed.

I think the better answer may be to simplify the ways of the legislature, such that newly elected congresspersons can contribute meaningfully within a few months.

Members of the state legislature are not Congresspersons in the first place. At any rate, the subject matter and the diversity of interests with concerns about the subject matter that the legislation addresses is inherently complex. One might wish that it was simpler, but there is little that can be done to make it so—one might as well wish that medicine were simpler so that it didn't take people as long to figure out how to be competent doctors.

Posted by: cmdicely on February 26, 2007 at 7:29 PM | PERMALINK

Freelunch, it's really not clear that that plan would pass constitutional muster; my reading of Reynolds v. Sims suggests that it wouldn't.

Posted by: aphrael on February 26, 2007 at 11:29 PM | PERMALINK

"doofuses"

Isn't "doofi" the correct plural of "doofus"?

Posted by: dzman49 on February 27, 2007 at 10:59 AM | PERMALINK

Freelunch, it's really not clear that that plan would pass constitutional muster; my reading of Reynolds v. Sims suggests that it wouldn't.

Reynolds v. Sims "one man, one vote" result prohibits unequal representation; it certainly doesn't prohibit multimember districts with proportional representation, nor does it seem to me to prohibit unequal size multimember districts provided that ratio of representatives to voters is constant.

Posted by: cmdicely on February 27, 2007 at 11:05 AM | PERMALINK

And, if a State should provide that the votes of citizens in one part of the State should be given two times, or five times, or 10 times the weight of votes of citizens in another part of the State, it could hardly be contended that the right to vote of those residing in the disfavored areas had not been effectively diluted.

A good lawyer could make an argument that allowing someone's vote to influence the selection of five legislators while someone else's vote only influenced the selection of three stood in contrast to this requirement.

So: equal size multimember districts would probably be fine, but inequal size multimember districts would be vulnerable to the accusation of vote dilution. Which isn't to say it's a guaranteed loss; but it's certainly not a clear win, either.

Posted by: aphrael on February 27, 2007 at 12:31 PM | PERMALINK

For that matter, Lucas v. Colorado Gen. Assembly seems to imply a bias against large multimember districts, although that appears to be drawn more on the Warren Court's political preferences than on any constitutional requirement, and it's far from clear that the bias would exist in the current court.

Posted by: aphrael on February 27, 2007 at 12:43 PM | PERMALINK
A good lawyer could make an argument that allowing someone's vote to influence the selection of five legislators while someone else's vote only influenced the selection of three stood in contrast to this requirement.

And a good lawyer could make the case that, under an STV-like system, any individual voter's vote influences the selection of exactly one candidate, so that the argument you make would be irrelevant even if true.

And a good lawyer could make the case that, under most reasonable proportional representation system, if the ratio of represented to representatives is constant, no one's vote is "given two times, or five times, or 10 times the weight of votes of citizens in another part of the State", even where the number of representatives per district isn't equal.

Though, of course, equal size multimember districts are a lot safer from such concerns.


For that matter, Lucas v. Colorado Gen. Assembly seems to imply a bias against large multimember districts,

Much of the past history on multimember districts (including, specifically, the various notes about why they might be undesirable in the footntes of the Lucas decision) involve systems which involved multimember districts in which members were elected at large by a non-proportional scheme (either with several seats elected as if from separate districts that happened to have exactly the same voters, or by a vote-for-N method where the N highest vote-getters were elected, or some practically similar method) that effectively, and often by design, denied all effective representation to minority interests within the district, even one's geopgraphically concentrated so that one could not have avoided giving them a voice were single-member districts used; that's also why a federal statute currently prohibits multimember congressional districts. That history is of limited value and relevance in addressing multimember proportional districts, which fall on the other side of single-member plurality districts from that kind of multimember districts, making it harder, not easier, to deny effective representation to significant minority interests.

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