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'Safe Seats' Cheat the Voters

November 10, 2002

There wasn't much mystery last week about who would be elected to the state Legislature or California's delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives. Party leaders in the Legislature stacked the deck last year when they drew new district lines to reflect population shifts on the basis of the 2000 census.

Those 153 districts were carved into enclaves of heavy Democratic and Republican voter registration to provide "safe" seats. Maps in hand before a single vote was cast, you could have picked the winner in virtually every district -- 80 in the Assembly, 20 in the state Senate and 53 in the House. Only five of the 153 were true contests. All but one of the 49 California incumbents in Congress won by a landslide, with at least 60% of the vote. The other, Rep. Lois Capps (D-Santa Barbara), won with 59%. Democrats remain strongly in control of all three houses.

This cynical deal may serve the pols well, but it's bad for California. It becomes virtually impossible to hold lawmakers accountable at the next election. The Legislature is increasingly polarized between Republican conservatives and liberal Democrats. In spite of their majorities, Democrats need some GOP votes to pass the budget and any other fiscal bill. That's why this year's budget was deadlocked for two months beyond the deadline.

It's in the public interest to have clear lines of opinion and vigorous debate. But the Legislature is so fractured now, it's virtually impossible to reach a compromise on any major issue, particularly on spending and taxes. The result of Tuesday's election will be even more gridlock.

In most states, legislatures have the task of redrawing legislative district boundaries and those of the state delegation to the U.S. House, usually subject to gubernatorial approval. A few legislatures have appointed commissions that do the job. In Iowa this year, a nonpartisan bureau set the boundary lines for districts.

California's districts were drawn to last until after the 2010 census. The silver lining, if any, is that good-government groups have time to develop an alternative to legislators drawing their own districts. There is a solution, but not one the legislators would accept. They cherish the power to decide where district lines go, even to skew them so that a potential challenger is put into a neighboring district. Past ballot initiatives to give the job to an independent commission were defeated in a flood of misleading attack ads paid for by legislative leaders.

Some activists talk of the Iowa method. That might be difficult in California because the head of the comparable office, though serving both Republicans and Democrats, is picked by the leaders of the party in power. Although Iowa considers its procedure nonpartisan, it's impossible to remove politics from the process. That isn't the goal. The goal is to bring competition -- and a chance for serious debate -- to legislative races.

The discussion should begin now. Because it would require a constitutional amendment to take away the Legislature's redistricting power, there's no reason why the measure couldn't order the drawing of new districts for the next election. That would return real competition and accountability to the political process in California.

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