When the California Citizens Redistricting Commission (CRC) was established in 2008 (by Proposition 11), a super majority of its 14 members were to come from members of the state’s two largest political parties based upon voter registration – five from the largest party (in practice the Democrats), and five from the second largest (in practice the Republicans).
Four other commissioners were to be from neither of these parties – meaning they could either be registered members of other ballot qualified parties, or be registered ‘No Party Preference’.
When the first CRC was chosen in 2011, all ‘four of neither party’ commissioners were registered No Party Preference. No commissioners came from California’s smaller ballot status parties – the American Independent, Green, Libertarian, and Peace and Freedom parties.
One of the ironies of the CRC is that it was intended to address partisan gerrymandering of district lines in California single-seat district, winner-take-all electoral system. Yet even if the CRC is successful in lessening such partisan bias, its own commission structure still reflects the duopoly bias of California’s electoral system.
Winner-take-all electoral systems like that used in California tend to produce two dominant political parties — a duopoly — owing to the us vs. them nature of single-seat elections. But should the CRC reflect this by design?
Are we MAD?
The CRC approach is to give equal power to members of two political parties, in response to partisan gerrymandering by one political party – kind of like the nuclear doctrine of ‘mutually assured destruction’ (MAD) between the US and Russia, except more positive.
Twenty years ago registered Democrats and Republicans made up 81.99% of all voter registrants in California. When the first CRC was chosen in 2011, that percentage was down to 74.52%. By October 2019 it was down to 67.64% – and this trend shows no signs of subsiding. The bulk of this net change has mostly gone into No Party Preference (NPP) voters, who made up 14.43% of registered voters in 1999 and 26.74% today.
By definition NPP voters have chosen not to register in a party – and for many of them, this is because there is not a party on the ballot they identify with, at least one that is electorally viable within the duopoly.
NPP voters received four of the 14 seats in the 2011 CRC. They clearly should get some seats, because their registration status is a reflection of the limited choices and representation offered by California’s electoral system. But the increase in NPP voters has not led to expanded choice and representation in California via a viable multi-party system. Instead, owing to the single-seat, winner-take-all nature of California elections, most NPP voters have simply been funneled into voting for duopoly party candidates.
What about voters trying to overcome those limitations and provide more choice within the existing system, by being members of California’s four other political parties? These voters do so even though the electoral system greatly disadvantages them and their parties. This makes their efforts disproportionately significant compared to their numbers. For this reason alone, their voice should be more directly heard within the CRC process.
Yet these voters and their parties are ignored in Proposition 11’s CRC findings, which talk only about Democrats, Republicans and ‘independents’. Lumping four ballot status political parties and their members with ‘independents’ delegitimizes these parties and voters within our electoral system – and reveals the deeply internalized duopoly bias in our politics.
By definition, being an ‘independent’ should mean being a registered voter who is not registered in any political party. But in the CRC context — and in general in our society — being ‘independent’ has been reduced to mean ‘independent of the two major parties’! This political sleight-of-hand — intentional, sub-conscious or both — shows how deeply internalized the duopoly mentality is, even in our laws. One result is that members of California’s smaller ballot status parties are not assured a seat at the table in the redistricting process.
A better option?
We should not be seduced by the dominant status of the current two major parties within our existing duopoly, nor orient our way of thinking based upon it. Instead of the mutual deterrence approach of the CRC, which gives primacy to balancing Democrats vs. Republicans, what is the nuclear disarmament option, that eliminates the need for such political gymnastics in the first place? That option is moving to legislative elections from multi-seat districts by proportional representation.
Elections by proportional representation directly addresses key problems inherent in any redistricting process, because regardless of how the lines are drawn, everyone gets proportional representation within each district.
A change to proportional representation elections would also radically affect party registration numbers, with large numbers of voters likely moving into perhaps five to seven parties that are electorally viable in different parts of the state.
Of course the CRC process isn’t responsible for pushing this kind of electoral system change. But it also shouldn’t bias the process in any other way either.
Back in 2014, I appeared on a KQED Forum program “Is California’s Top-Two Primary System Blocking Third-Party Candidates?” When discussion moved to redistricting, and one of the guests — a prominent good government activist — said the new CRC process was making races more competitive. My response was that ‘more competitive’ doesn’t mean ‘more representative’. The goal of the CRC should not be to provide electoral districts that are competitive between the two largest parties. It should be to provide districts that provide best chance at voter representation, within the limits of our single-seat system.
A more representative CRC
To include more voters who are de facto shut out of representation within California elections, the CRC formula probably should have had a seat reserved for a member of one of California’s other ballot qualified parties — and perhaps not included such a large guaranteed super majority of members from the state’s largest two parties. But of course that is easy to say in hindsight.
I know some of the activists who worked on Proposition 11. I respect their work on this issue and on electoral reform in general. Proposition 11 was a heavy political lift, because the major parties did not want to give up their redistricting power. It’s important to remember that the Democrats and Republicans had long agreed upon a safe-seat split between them via the redistricting process, so they were both in on it. Therefore Proposition 11’s supporters probably did the best they could with the formula for the makeup of the commission.
But fortunately the CRC still has the opportunity this year to seat at least one member from one of the state’s smaller ballot status parties, as long as they are also otherwise qualified.
Sometime in March, the CRC applicant pool will be cut from the existing 342 to 120, with 40 of them reserved for registered voters from neither major party. For the reasons stated above — about the bias of our political system towards a duopoly and against multi-party representation — it would behoove the CRC to keep the option open to appoint someone from these smaller parties from within these 40 individuals, and not have all 40 be NPP. Our redistricting process would be more representative for it.
Michael Feinstein is a former Santa Monica Mayor and City Councilmember, a co-founder of the Green Party of California and a 2018 Green California Secretary of State candidate