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Thesis & Antithesis

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Location: Washington, D.C.

greekdefaultwatch@gmail.com Natural gas consultant by day, blogger on the Greek economy by night. Trained as an economist and political scientist. I believe in common sense and in data, and my aim is to offer insight written in language that is clear and convincing.

15 August 2005

Proposition 77

On Friday 12 August, California’s Supreme Court approved the inclusion of Proposition 77 into the state’s November 8 ballot initiatives; Proposition 77 would transfer the power to redraw districts from the state legislature to a panel of three retired judges.

This follows a long history of redistricting initiatives in California. In 1971, the governor vetoed the legislature’s reapportionment plan, which was then deferred to the California Supreme Court which appointed three people to draw up a plan that was accepted in November 1973. In June 1982, a proposed redistricting plan was rejected by the voters, who then, however, voted down a redistricting reform initiative in November 1982. In 1991, the governor and state legislature were unable to agree on a plan, resulting to mediation by the Supreme Court which appointed three masters whose plan was accepted in January 1992. As lately as 2000, Proposition 24 was meant to deal with this issue, but it was not included in the November 2000 elections (1).

Proposition 77 is both necessary and reasonable. It is necessary because the current plan often leads to deadlock, and because California’s elections are non-competitive: as the Los Angeles Times reports, “In the last redistricting, in 2001, Republican and Democratic lawmakers struck a gentlemen's agreement to draw new districts to protect the existing balance of power. Many political experts called those districts a major reason not one of 153 seats in the Legislature or the state's congressional delegation changed party hands in the last general election” (2). To be sure, California is not alone; as The Economist notes, “In 1998 and 2000, nine out of ten winning candidates in the House of Representatives won with 55% of the vote or more. That was the lowest percentage of close races of any election year since 1946, save one … Only six sitting congressmen were defeated in the general election in 2000, a re-election rate of 98%” (3).

Proposition 77 employs the common standard for resolving the political deadlock in California: appointing three independents to draw up a map. But instead of waiting until the deadlock, it allows the three former judges to redraw the districts by bypassing the legislature. There is certainly something final and non-democratic about giving up this power to three retired judges. Yet the current system, whereby the representatives, as The Economist put it, “get to pick their voters” is even more absurd.

All the same, the prospects for Proposition 77 do not look good. Only 35% of likely voters support the measure, 46% oppose it, and 19% are undecided. Democrats oppose the measure 57%-22%, while Republicans are marginally supportive 45%-38%. Other noticeable spreads are gender related (Males 41% yes; Females 29% yes), geographical (Southern Cal. 39% yes; Northern Cal. 30% yes), and educational (non-college grads support the measures as much as college grads, but college grads oppose it by 53% versus 38% for non-college grads) (4).

This is unfortunate. In 2004, the US Supreme Court decided, in a 5-4 vote, that a redistricting plan in Pennsylvania was not unconstitutional, thereby shouting out the courts from the role of checking legislatures (unless the abuse is egregious, whatever that means). Surely, redistricting can make sense in that people should not be excluded from the political process by virtue of where they live. But the reality is that this process is poisoned by politics, as lawmakers manipulate the rules to suit their electoral needs. If ensuring competitive elections and political enfranchisement is not a case where the people ought to delegate their power to three unelected judges, then what is?

(1) “Proposition 77: Reapportionment” http://www.igs.berkeley.edu/library/htRedistricting.html
(2) Nancy Vogel, “Redistricting back on ballot,” Los Angeles Times, 13 August 2005
(3) “How to rig an election,” The Economist, 25 April 2002
(4) “The Field Poll,” Field Research Corporation, 22 June 2005


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