Why the Tenth Time could be the Charm

Tony Quinn
Editor, California Target Book

Joe Mathews is wrong. The fact the state Democratic Party opposes the November redistricting reform initiative does not automatically doom it – unless of course the proponents make the same mistakes that killed the last nine chances at reforming this arcane process.

The first four efforts at reform really dealt with changing the way the old county based State Senate was districted. That ended with the one person-one vote Supreme Court decisions of the 1960s.

The modern efforts at reform involve five initiatives sponsored by the Republicans, beginning in 1982. Each went down primarily because they forced the voters to make a partisan choice, and each time the voters said no; it is not my fight I don’t want to get involved. Most recently, in 2005, they voted down an initiative written by the conservative activist Ted Costa and funded by Gov. Schwarzenegger and Republicans. It called for an immediate redrawing of district lines, a move intended to help the GOP.

So how is the tenth time different? First, the genesis of the measure is not a political party nor a politician, but reform groups like Common Cause. For the first time, this initiative has significant bipartisan support, including Schwarzenegger and his predecessor Democratic Gov. Gray Davis. It can expect major editorial board and media support; the California media has kept up a drumbeat over the lack of choice in legislative elections.

But this initiative could easily join the first nine in defeat, if its opponents can frame it as a partisan choice. Avoiding that fate depends on the quality of the proponents campaign and how effective they are in convincing the public that it has true bipartisan support and increases choice in elections (increased choice and competition being perhaps the biggest issues.)

More importantly, they must convince voters that the initiative responds to the anger they feel toward the political class, an anger we certainly saw in the defeat of the self-serving term limits measure in February.

This initiative is advantaged by being on a high turnout general election ballot. The partisan Democrats Mathews thinks will kill the measure come out in droves in low turnout primaries, but their votes are diluted in a high turnout election that includes independents and less ideological voters. These sometimes voters are less likely to act in a partisan way, less likely to blindly follow the Democratic Party bosses.

The vote drivers in California will not be the presidential candidates – I doubt we will see much of either candidate as McCain is in no position to put California into play and Obama does not need to worry about the Golden State. Issues will bring people to the polls, and a sour electorate is not in the mood to be kind to the political establishment. If proponents can tap into voter distemper, they can make even an obscure topic like redistricting an attack on the privileges of the political class. That could overcome partisan opposition, and make the tenth time the charm.

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