Tuesday, September 30, 2003

California Recall Election Update 

If the Gallup poll released yesterday has any predictive value, it appears that a week from tomorrow California will have a new governor, most likely Arnold Schwarzenegger. No guarantees, mind you -- Gray Davis has demonstrated his ability to pull together the votes he needs and his willingness to fight dirty when he deems it necessary. Now that Arnold has been identified as the clear front-runner, this last week is when we can expect Davis' media blitz against him. I expect to be astounded at how much ad hominem manure can be slung in one week.

Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico was on Fox News' Dayside this morning, making the point that Davis is experienced and Arnold is not. Davis is definitely experienced in milking special interest groups for money and in bestowing special favors on those who support him. Based on where that experience has got the State of California, I say bring on the inexperienced!

Whatever else you can say about this recall election, it has certainly generated a lot of interest in California politics, which I think is a good thing. One of the reasons Davis has been able to pander to the special interests so successfully is that California is for all intents and purposes a one-party state. That needs to be fixed, and if Arnold (who is the only candidate who is likely to even think about taking on the task) can do that one thing his time in office will have been successful. Getting the voters interested is a necessary condition to reform.

The underlying problem with politics in California, as well as in many (most?) other states, is that the legislative districts (including Congressional districts) are gerrymandered as much as possible to ensure the reelection of the incumbent. As a result, only a small minority of seats are truly up for grabs in each election cycle.

This breeds voter apathy and cynicism. It also leads to the hyper-polarization of political parties that we experience here, because only the blood-in-the-eye partisans are interested at all. If you doubt the truth of this, look at how the current free-for-all (which the fat cats cannot control) has awakened interest in California politics, both inside and outside of the state.

Given a political climate in which a majority of the seats are actually in play in any given election, I think people will be a lot more interested in voting and as a result will become much better educated on the issues and the candidates' positions. And the politicians will be a lot more responsive to the electorate, because they will realize that their reelection is not to be taken for granted. All in all, a lot better than the status quo.

California and other states tried to solve the problem with term limits, but it hasn't worked, because a district designed to ensure incumbent reelection does a pretty good job of ensuring that a member of the same party is elected when the incumbent is term-limited out. I think what is needed is for redistricting as much as possible to be a completely apolitical process, conducted by an appointed body that is specifically chosen not to favor any particular ideology.

Iowa provides a model of how this could work. Their redistricting plan is based entirely on population, with strict limits on how much the population of any district can vary from the ideal or from other districts. That's not rocket science, especially with the sophisticated computer programs that are used today in the gerrymandering process. But the following, which I believe is the key provision of the Iowa redistricting law, is downright revolutionary:
A district shall not be drawn for the purpose of favoring a political party, incumbent legislator, or member of Congress or other person or group or for the purpose of augmenting or diluting the voting strength of a language or racial minority group. In establishing districts, no use shall be made of the addresses of incumbent legislators or members of Congress, the political affiliations of registered voters, previous election results, or demographic information other than population head counts.

An initiative putting similar language in the California Constitution would be one I could get behind 100%. I expect neither major party would support it, however. The Dems wouldn't because it would destroy their lock on California's government, and the GOP wouldn't because they'd be afraid of becoming an even smaller minority (or, alternatively, the far right's influence on the California GOP would have to drastically diminish to permit the party to field electable candidates). I'm pessimistic -- it won't happen unless and until the State hits rock bottom and the people realize that drastic measures are required.

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