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Ã‚ By PHIL HOSKINS
The redrawing of district lines for state and national representation is one of the most time honored opportunities for political mischief. In 2002 we saw Tom Delay use his power to redraw congressional district lines in Texas providing the Republicans not only with the advantage in House elections in that state but also thereby giving his party the balance of power in the house of Representatives.
Not to be outdone, the Democrats under Speaker Pelosi are resisting efforts in California to alter the process for drawing district lines. Governor Schwarzenegger lost a voter initiative effort in 2006 to take the district drawing power away from the legislature and hand it to a panel of retired state judges. But the issue remains alive and compelling in the Golden State with the Democratic majority there considering several options, all of which would result in eliminating the state legislatureÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s power to redraw its own districts.
Reportedly Pelosi is afraid doing so would threaten the tenuous Democratic edge in the U.S. House of Representatives because there would be fewer Ã¢â‚¬Å“safeÃ¢â‚¬Â seats after an impartial redistricting. This, coming from the Ã¢â‚¬Å“most ethical Congress,Ã¢â‚¬Â puts a strain on the meaning of Ã¢â‚¬Å“ethical.Ã¢â‚¬Â
The U.S. Supreme Court has, except for cases brought under the voting Rights Act, given state legislatures a wide berth with regard to this issue. Gerrymandering, even when it results in districts that look like bad abstract art or a childÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s scribbling have been approved by the Court. Even redistricting more often than after the decennial census, as in Texas, which redistricted after only two years when the state legislature changed party hands.
Absent an act of Congress, which is about as likely as a sunrise in the western sky, it will remain an issue for state by state regulation. Responding to national party pressure, California Democrats have withdrawn their agreement to change the way lines are drawn for Congressional districts, fearing as does Madam Speaker, that doing so would threaten their majority in the House. They have therefore, agreed only to redraw state district lines and coupled that with the demand to loosen term limits.
For most people this is an issue way down the list of those things one worries about, especially when there is so much that looms on our horizon both personally and politically. Yet a closer examination points to the fact that making redistricting a non-partisan matter could yield major changes in the national and state political landscape.
When a legislature draws district lines it has political goals in mind: (1) make seats safe for all in oneÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s own party and (2) make them especially safe for those who are good fund raisers, and (3) in states such as California with term limits, they seek to provide a pathway for members to go from one legislative branch to the other safely. In short, it is all about denying voters any real choices in elections.
The result is virtually no turnover of seats because there are few districts really Ã¢â‚¬Å“in playÃ¢â‚¬Â where the balance of party affiliation is close enough to make elections matter. So the same faces return year after year, seldom facing a real challenge in elections, and the accumulation of power and opportunities for its abuse build and build. We could enact all the campaign finance reforms ever considered and without changes in the way district lines are drawn there would be little change.
Five states have taken the process away from their legislature and two have modified systems. It is time for all states and Congress itself to reform this system. Districts should be drawn to closely resemble naturally cohesive geographical areas. Politics should be taken out of the redrawing so that it could flourish in the elections with more districts having elections that matter and true competition being made possible.
There is room for debate about which non-partisan system is best, but I say there is no question of the need to change it.
Partisan politics has nearly killed the American dream and it will take a strong effort on the part of those who see the need to reform this process to make any headway. Without these changes, we are at the mercy of the party hacks who control who we can vote for before there is even a campaign. Madam Speaker, live up to your pledge and let California set itself free of the iron grip of partisan politics.
(Phil Hoskins is a Hollywood attorney who founded Ã¢â‚¬Å“Take Back West Hollywood.Ã¢â‚¬Â)