November 3, 2005
Our Faux Democracy
The average California voter doesn't know what "redistricting" is. Many voters don't even know what a "voting district" is. The aversion among California voters to such wonky issues goes a long way to explaining why Proposition 77, a long-overdue reform, is struggling.
Most Californians think that, when they vote, they do so within a community of interest, based largely on geography and community boundaries, known as a "voting district." That was true years ago. But the advent of highly sophisticated computer software now allows the California legislature to painstakingly divide voters block by block. The Democratic Party and Republican Party use this technological power to divide voters, not based on communities of interest, but on party registration instead.
First, Republican and Democratic voters are carefully separated from one another using computer programs that extensively sort and track personal voter registration data. Then, the Democrats are grouped into phony and often bizarrely shaped "voting districts" of their own, and the Republicans into phony and often bizarrely shaped "voting districts" of their own.
Finally, during the spring primaries, the dominant party in one of these dishonest voting districts chooses a highly partisan candidate to spoon-feed to its corralled voters -- usually a candidate with little interest in wooing voters from the other side of the aisle. After all, since the dominant party is guaranteed the win in such a rigged "voting district," the candidates themselves need not be pragmatic types capable of talking to different sorts of voters.
This is not democracy. The California legislature stole our democracy while we slept. All districts in California are now rigged this way. That's why, in California in the fall of 2004, not a single state legislative or Congressional seat changed party hands.
Because these phony voting districts are designed to stamp out competition between the two parties, the dismal election outcomes can now be widely predicted months before Election Day. As one wag described the untenable situation in California, "Voters no longer pick the candidate. Candidates pick their voters."
Proposition 77 would halt this anti-democratic practice. The measure would hand the job of drawing up California voting districts to an independent panel of retired judges. It's a good idea, but many California Democratic elected leaders -- instead of doing the right thing -- are doing everything they can to torpedo this long overdue reform.
Just like the dominant Republicans in Texas who grossly abused their gerrymandering powers, California's dominant elected Democrats can see only as far as their next election victory. It's exceedingly unlikely that Democrats would lose their grip on power in the Sacramento legislature, even if they had to compete in elections once again, because California is heavily Democratic no matter how the voting district lines are drawn. But at least voters would have a choice.
The state's Democratic leadership is spending millions of dollars to defeat Proposition 77 to make sure there is no choice.
So far, Proposition 77 remains up for grabs. Its fate remains in play despite the Democratic millions. A poll released Oct. 28 by the Public Policy Institute of California showed Proposition 77 lagging 50 percent to 36 percent. That looks discouraging, but, as noted by Public Policy Institute of California research director Mark Baldassare, the same percentage of voters opposed Proposition 77 back in August, before the Democrats poured a king's ransom into defeating it. Moreover, an unusually large number of people -- 14 percent -- are still undecided late in the race.
"With this many undecideds," Baldassare said, "it is really hard to know where redistricting will end up. The numbers just are not moving, with that 50 percent opposed figure staying the same since August."
His past polls indicate that roughly 60 percent of Californians think there is something very wrong about letting politicians pick and choose the voters and districts in which the politicians run for office. So if backers can just transmit their message to voters, Proposition 77 can win.
"In my previous poll, so many people felt it was wrong for the Legislature to have this control," he said. "That fact, combined with the undecideds, makes me think this measure will come down to how people focus on the issue in these final days."
So why is Proposition 77 in trouble at all? The problem is that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is embracing it and Democrats are demonizing it -- and him. The governor's approval ratings are low, and many Democrats are uncertain whom to believe.
"Voters are looking for cues, or clues, that tell them if this is a measure that might have a political motive, or is an honest effort at good government," Baldassare said.
For his part, the governor needs to speak plainly and directly to all Californians, without rancor, to explain this wonky-sounding issue. Then, voters must do the rest. People in a democracy must arm themselves with knowledge, or face losing their democracy.
In fact, that's already happened in California.
Jill Stewart is a syndicated political columnist and can be reached at www.jillstewart.net.