The Aug. 21 editorial "California Steps Forward" perpetuated the myth that redistricting is largely responsible for declining competition in elections and that shifting responsibility for drawing district lines to nonpartisan commissions can reverse this trend.
Competition in California elections has been declining for years because the state as a whole has been becoming more Democratic. Its largest metropolitan areas, Los Angeles County and the San Francisco Bay Area, are much more Democratic than they were 30 or 40 years ago, while many of the state's rural areas are more strongly Republican than in the past. This trend can be seen at the county level.
In the 2004 presidential election, most California counties' votes were decided by a margin of more than 20 percentage points, and these landslide counties included about two-thirds of the state's voters.
Declining competition in California and many other states is a result of powerful demographic and political trends in U.S. society that will not be reversed by nonpartisan redistricting commissions.
ALAN I. ABRAMOWITZ
Even if Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's initiative to take redistricting out of the hands of self-serving incumbents and place it in the hands of retired judges is successful, don't expect any significant change in the competitiveness of California's state and federal legislative districts. Arizona voters passed a similar initiative in 2000, yet the number of competitive districts there didn't grow.
In states such as California and Arizona, the Voting Rights Act shelters black and Hispanic voters from electoral competition, almost guaranteeing the creation of gerrymandered seats-for-life for white, Hispanic and black politicians. These ultra-safe districts tend to be politically polarized, because winning a party's nomination in the primary guarantees a win in the general election.
Until Congress fixes what it broke when it amended the act in 1982, and lets the penalty or "preclearance" provision expire in 2007, states in which minorities make up a sizable percentage of the population will not have much political competition.
American Enterprise Institute
Getting redistricting decisions out of the hands of the politicians who run in the very districts they are creating and putting it in the hands of retired judges would be an improvement, but only a slight one. Some of those judges may have been appointees with political ties themselves. After all, who's going to appoint the panel?
The editorial, though, hinted at the proper answer. "The advent of high-powered computing has made the old art of gerrymandering into a corruptly exact science." It is perfectly possible, and indeed fairly simple, to take neighborhood-level census data and have a computer get population-balanced districts with a minimum total perimeter (most contiguous possible). No politics necessary.