I keep hearing from observers of California politics — all of them smarter and more experienced than yours truly — who have the same question: what do the results of the redistricting initiative, Prop 11, mean?
They don’t know, and neither do I. We don’t even know yet, for sure, that Prop 11 has won. It has a lead, but some 2 million votes have not been counted statewide. And to look at the map of results is to study a puzzle with no obvious solution.
Results of initiative elections typically correlate with other factors: geography, demographics, partisan affiliation. But take a look at the map on Prop 11. None of these factors seem to explain the results on 11.
The results in Los Angeles and Kern Counties are nearly identical — just over 47 percent yes. It lost in some inland, "red," Republican counties (Fresno, Madera) and lost in others (Tulare, Kings). What’s striking is that folks everywhere seemed to be divided: support and opposition fell between 55 and 45 percent just about everywhere.
The best possible explanation I have is that confusion reigned: The Field Poll work on Prop 11 suggests that voters who knew something about Prop 11 tended to favor it. Those who didn’t know much tended to be opposed. And it may be that with so much else on the ballot, voters didn’t know much about Prop 11. The map hints at a knowledge gap: voters in the counties close to Sacramento, who tend to get more news of the legislature, favored Prop 11.
What’s the meaning of all this? That political reform has a promising future in California, but it’s not that promising. That a reform initiative on something like redistricting has passed — or come very close to passing — suggests that reformers who want to change the way the state votes, or the way the legislature is constructed, have a puncher’s chance. But it’s going to be difficult to educate the public, even with multiple campaigns (remember, redistricting was on the ballot in 2005). And to have a chance, reformers must neutralize their opposition, as Prop 11 did. The no side of the campaign was poorly funded and disorganized. Even with all those advantages, redistricting reform may have lost.
So there is a constituency for political reform. But that constituency is not coherent. It’s not identifiable by geography, demographic or party. Political reform is going to require a difficult and long process of public education. One wonders if California’s impatient, initiative-happy reformers have the patience to get the job done.