NEXT MONTH, voters in Ohio and California will have the opportunity to pass important reforms to the way their states draw legislative districts. Ballot initiatives in the two states would remove redistricting from the hands of politicians with a vested interest in legislative lines and create less political means of mapping democracy. In California, the proposal is being championed by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and fiercely opposed by Democrats. In Ohio, it's being pushed by Democrats and fiercely opposed by Republicans. In both states, polls show the initiatives in trouble. While neither is perfect or would be a cure-all to the corrosive problem of noncompetitive elections, both initiatives would bring improvement over the status quo.
Modern redistricting is a travesty. Politicians, using powerful computers, design districts that all but guarantee victory to one side or another. Sure, voters can go through the motions on Election Day, but few races are more than fictions. Sometimes the process is rigged to protect incumbents, sometimes to oust them, but maximizing competition and voter choice is never the goal when politicians get to draw the districts in which they or their friends will run. The result contributes to political polarization, since heavily Democratic districts tend to elect people far more liberal than average while heavily Republican districts tend to elect people far more conservative.
The alternative -- some form of nonpartisan commission considering only apolitical data -- would not magically make all elections tight races. States that have such a system, such as Iowa and Arizona, have not in recent years seen dramatically competitive elections. The difference is that such states are not guaranteeing an absence of competition; incumbents sometimes even have to work for reelection. In California in 2004, by contrast, not a single legislative seat changed party hands. That's a rigged system, not merely one in which incumbents have an advantage.
The major problem with these initiatives is that they would introduce reform in the middle of a census cycle, instead of waiting until the new census in 2010. Reforming redistricting mid-cycle makes the project look a bit too much like what Republicans did in Texas recently -- that is, a partisan power grab designed to enhance not voter choice but rather one party's representation in Congress. The unwillingness to delay implementation in both California and Ohio until the next census puts a partisan edge on what should be a nonpartisan issue -- allowing Democrats in California and Republicans in Ohio to argue that supporters of reform are merely members of the out party trying to gain seats they can't win under current law. The case for redistricting reform is better argued when it isn't quite so clear as to whom it will help and hurt.
Still, the measures would improve democracy in both states. Even if elections did not become dramatically more competitive, the system would be more open. Elections are supposed to be about voters choosing candidates. That's not a meaningful choice if the candidates have already gotten to choose their voters.