VOTERS IN OHIO and California last week voted down ballot initiatives that would have created more competitive legislative districts. For those alarmed by the negative impact of modern redistricting -- incumbency protection and endangering the moderate center -- the votes are a setback. Yet they carry lessons for advocates of reform in other states.

The most important is that redistricting should not be attempted in the middle of a census cycle -- even when that redistricting is in the service of reform. Mid-cycle redistricting threatens to institutionalize the raw partisan politics that follow each decennial census and turn them into an ongoing state of affairs. That's what happened in Texas, where Republicans redrew the map after gaining control of the legislature in 2002.

The Ohio and California plans weren't such partisan power grabs. Both would have improved the way their states draw lines for congressional seats and state legislative districts. Yet because both would have redrawn lines in the middle of the cycle, it was too clear which party they would help: The California proposal was pushed by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Ohio initiative by Democrats. Both were easy for the opposing party to paint as precisely the sort of political machinations reform is meant to prevent.

The broader lesson is that for reform to work, it has to be bipartisan and unpredictable in whom it will help and whom it will hurt. But the goals of reform should not change, notwithstanding this year's defeats. American elections are growing ever less competitive while squeezing out moderates from both parties and polarizing politics. This is in part because politicians get to choose their voters, rather than the reverse, and so they draw districts that are reliably Republican or Democratic. The system corrodes democracy.