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No on Proposition 11?

by Herb Engstrom --


The October issue of "The Democratic Voice," the newsletter of the Santa Clara County Democratic Club, contained an article entitled "No on Proposition 11" by member Jeanne Lamar. Those of us who support Prop. 11 were not given an opportunity to respond before the publication of the newsletter. I'll take this opportunity now.

Proposition 11, as most people are no doubt aware, would remove the power to set the boundaries of California Assembly Districts, State Senate districts, and Board of Equalization districts from the state legislature and give it to a commission made up of 14 California voters qualified to perform this function. The proposition is written to make that commission as nonpartisan as possible.

Keep in mind that much of the opposition to 11 originates with the California Democratic Party, which obviously is very self-interested in retaining as much power as it can. I showed why the current system benefits incumbent officeholders in my own article "Fairness in Proposition 11" in the October newsletter and why so many current officeholders have fallen in line with the CDP.

Let me first comment on the article's very long introduction, which was written by newsletter editor Shirley Odou.

Shirley quotes House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as describing the proposition as "goofy." We all know that Ms. Pelosi is the Democratic Speaker of the House and is eager to preserve the incumbency of her fellow Democrats. Enough said.

Shirley also points out, quite correctly, that much of the financial backing for 11 comes from Republicans, particularly Gov. Schwarzenegger. Need I point out that at present Schwarzenegger is none too popular among the state's Republican Party? He couldn't even get his proposed budget passed, even with the support of California's Democratic legislators. It appears that the California Republican Party will be in a very long term, if not permanent, minority in California. Their support for 11 is more like grasping at straws than a well thought out, politically responsible program.

She goes on to say that 11's "flaws" have been pointed out by redistricting expert Jim Wisley. Mr. Wisley has participated in redistricting, but he admits to being a highly partisan Democrat. Enough said.

Shirley refers to the opposition by the California League of Conservation Voters, which cites a study by the Public Policy Institute of California. Has any of these opponents even read the PPIC study? Evidently not. The study concerned only one issue, whether or not Proposition 11 would reduce partisanship. It concluded that it would not. Even supporters (Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, AARP, etc.) only claim that a very few California districts would become more competitive and thus reduce partisanship. The PPIC study does not address the primary reason that we need to pass Proposition 11: the obvious conflict of interest of legislators who have the power to choose their voters by defining the boundaries of their own districts. That power is used to guarantee, as far as possible, the re-election of incumbents. One calamitous result of the present system was that California voters imposed term limits on legislators.

Finally, Shirley notes the opposition to 11 by Senator Boxer and Representatives Lofgren, Honda, and Pelosi. All four are not only Democrats, they are incumbent Democrats. What about high-ranking Democrats that are no longer in office? Former governor Gray Davis, former Democratic Party Chair Steve Westly, former Assembly Speaker Robert Hertzberg, former Speaker Pro Tem Fred Keeley, former Congressman Leon Panetta: these have no interest in protecting their own incumbency, and all support Proposition 11.

Now to Jeanne Lamar's comments. Her main concern is that to define the district boundaries, three Democrats on the commission, three Republicans, and three members not affiliated with either party must agree on the map. Thus, the five Republican members of the commission could easily block the agreement.

The first problem with this argument is her assumption, which I'm afraid, is very widely shared, and that is that the members of the commission will vote according to the dictates of the party of their affiliation. The proposition goes to very great lengths to ensure that the members of the commission are nonpolitical. What follows are the restrictions imposed on commission members:

For the preceding 10 years, neither a commission member, nor a member of his or her immediate family, may have been appointed to, elected to, or have been a candidate for federal or state public office.

For the preceding four years, neither a commission member, nor a member of his or her immediate family, may have done any of the following:

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  • Served as an officer of a political party, or as an officer, paid staff, or paid consultant of a candidate's campaign committee.
  • Served as an elected or appointed member of a political party central committee.
  • Been a registered federal, state or local lobbyist.
  • Served as paid staff for the state legislature, Board of Equalization or Congress or any individual legislator, Board of Equalization member or member of Congress.
  • Given $2,000 or more to a candidate for state legislature, Board of Equalization or Congress.

Staff and consultants to, persons under a contract with, or immediate family relationship with the Governor, a member of the Legislature, a member of Congress, or a member of the State Board of Equalization, are not eligible to serve as members of the commission. Commissioners are not permitted to hold public office in California, serve as paid staff for the Legislature or any individual legislator or to register as a federal, state or local lobbyist during their terms on the Commission or for five years thereafter.

These criteria effectively eliminate anyone with the slightest inclination to take direction from their party of affiliation.

Note also that in the 2006 statewide general election Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected as was Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein. That could not have happened unless there are a substantial number of Californians that do not vote the party line. It is those Republicans and Democrats that vote independently of party affiliation that are sought to fill the positions on the commission.

Now suppose for other reasons the Commission cannot agree on the boundaries. In that case the Secretary of State must appeal to the California Supreme Court to appoint a panel of "masters" that would make the final adjustments to the boundaries. As Carol Dalrymple pointed out to me at the last Club meeting, that would be the very same "Republican dominated" Supreme Court that on May 8 of this year overturned the ban on gay marriage. Six of the seven justices may have been appointed by Republican governors, but given the gay marriage decision, one can hardly conclude that the Court is Republican dominated.

Also, in 1991 the legislature could not agree on the boundaries, so redistricting was turned over to the Supreme Court, which appointed a panel of three retired judges to finalize the boundaries. Common Cause has done some analysis that indicated that the elections in the 90s, following the Court redistricting, were more competitive those in the 80s or 00s. Competition increases voter turnout, which favors Democrats. Note that in the 90s the sky definitely did not fall. Democrats did quite well.

Ms. Lamar suggests further that in a district divided fairly between Republicans and Democrats, the Republican advantage in fundraising will allow them to "spread lies, distort the facts, create fear and do a character assassination on the Democratic candidate," and thus, presumably, win the election. There are at least a couple of errors in this line of reasoning.

First, nowhere in the proposition does it say that districts must or even will be divided fairly. There is no way that an Assembly district in San Francisco has a chance of electing a Republican, nor will the suburbs of Bakersfield elect a Democrat given the proposition's criteria for setting boundaries -- most importantly that of compactness.

Second, while it is true that the candidate with the most money usually wins election, as the old saying goes, correlation does not imply causality. That is, the candidate likely to attract the most votes for other reasons is also likely to attract the most money. Steven Leavitt in his book "Freakonomics" reports on his study of elections in which all other factors but money were eliminated. He did so by looking at elections in different years between the same two major candidates in which they had different amounts of money to spend. He concluded that money was a surprisingly small factor in the victory. He estimated that if a candidate had spent half as much money on his or her election, he or she would have lost only about 1% of the vote.

Ms. Lamar goes on to tell us that it is important to remember that this is a constitutional amendment. She does not explain why we should remember that. In fact, it has to be a constitutional amendment because Article XXI of California constitution gives the legislature the power to perform redistricting. The only way to give that power to a nonpartisan commission is by amending the constitution.

Finally, Ms. Lamar agrees that there are problems with the current system as does just about everyone including the California Democratic Party, the principal opponent of the proposition. The trouble is that none of these opponents have proposed an alternative that corrects these problems. Proposition 11 was drawn up by nonpartisan, good government groups such as Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, and AARP. They have crafted this proposition after taking input from a wide variety of sources, Republican and Democratic, left, right, and middle, academic and union. In a process this complex no procedure will satisfy everyone and possibly not even anyone. But the proposition is far better that the current system in which legislators choose their voters instead of the other way around, and it deserves our support. If we don't do it now, we'll have to wait at least another 10 years.

Vote Yes on Proposition 11.

herb engstrom

by Herb Engstrom

Herb Engstrom is a retired physicist who worked on materials problems related to energy production and storage at both Brookhaven and Oak Ridge National Labs.