The Vanguard has a new home, please update your bookmarks to

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Still Against Proposition 11 and So-called Re-Districting "Reform"

Early in the process this year, I came out against Proposition 11. However, a lot has happened since that point in time. With two weeks to go before the election, I thought I would re-examine my thoughts on the issue.

Proposition 11 in a nutshell would change the way that California draws its districts every ten years for setting the geographic boundaries of the state's 120 legislative and four Board of Equalization districts. Under current law, that task falls to the state legislature. If Proposition 11 passes, it would give that power to a new 14-member commission. That commission must include five Democrats, five Republicans, and four from neither party.

Notably this would not include congressional districts.

The measure has pretty broad support across party lines with a variety of past and current elected officials, a number of both Democratic and Republican club organizations, and a number of interest groups on both sides.

Some of the groups supporting it are: Common Cause, AARP, Los Angeles Chamber, League of Women Voters, ACLU of Southern California, California Police Chiefs Association, among many others.

Prominent officials include Governor Schwarzenegger, Former Controller Steve Westly, Former Governor Gray Davis, Former Congressman Leon Panetta, Former Senate Republican Leader Jim Brulte, Former Speaker Robert Hertzberg, Davis' Assemblywoman Lois Wolk, among a number of others.

And the editorial boards of many of California's biggest newspapers: Los Angeles Times, San facisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News, San Diego Union Tribune, Orange County Register, Fresno Bee, and the Stockton Record, again among others. Again you have liberal editorial boards and conservative ones.

With all of this said, I am still against this bill. As I thought through it last night, I realized, that as much as I have a reformist agenda in many ways, I do not have one with regards to voting reforms. Moreover, I think past voting reforms have created more harm than good.

Start with term limits. I think they have been an absolute disaster for California. They did not solve the problem of governance, it simply set loose a bunch of amateur legislators to control the 7th largest economy in the world. And as soon as those legislators actually learn the legislative process and how to write laws, they move on to the next branch of government.

That reform does two things, it vests power in elected and more permanent elements such as lobbyists and staffers. And it encourages promotion into ranks of government where the individuals have surpassed their skill. The result is that we get a rotating basis in the constitutional offices and it is far from clear that California is well-served by this.

I am also against the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution. There have only been a few times in history when an individual ever had a chance to run and win a third term. Ironically it happened more with the Republicans than the Democrats. Nevertheless, I think it is a horrible law because it effectively makes for a powerless, lame duck President which means there is a true executive only a short portion of time every eight years.

For both term limits and the 22nd Amendment, I believe the voters should have the right to vote for who they want. If they want to elect their representatives for life--let them. If the American People want to elect a President four times as they did with FDR, why stop them? I am really not concerned that America given the competitive system and the checks and balances we have will devolve into a tyranny based on allowing the public to select their leadership of their choosing. It is not as though these types of "reforms" have solved the problems.

I am against campaign finance reform. I see no evidence that the McCain-Feingold bill has slowed down the influence of money. I see no evidence that PACs exert less influence now than they did prior to that legislation. The same is true in California with Proposition 34. All that bill has done is make parties stronger with their ability to finance legislative campaigns.

It is ironic that Republicans now are decrying the death of campaign finance reform and public financing due to Barrack Obama raising $180 million last month. It was President Bush who set that in motion last year by raising around $200 million. Moreover, Barrack Obama actually raised most of this money from small donations. His average donation was $86. That's astounding. He has gotten over 3 million individual contributions. We want to encourage that kind of broad-based support, not discourage it.

It is in fact the death of public financing. And while public financing sounds like a good idea, it would be doomed as well unless we somehow passed a constitutional amendment that vested all power in the public financing system. And even then, I suspect monied interests would find loopholes.

What I would favor is instead what I favor for most things--full disclosure and transparency. And actually enforcing that fulll disclosure and transparency with real teeth.

Along those lines I think the initiative system is a particularly bad way to enact legislation. There are few laws, even ones that I have voted for, that were passed through initiative that actually worked well. So not only do I think that reform was a poor one, it is too easy for monied interests to get laws on the ballot and too difficult for the average citizen. Plus laws are complex and unless they are well-written they will devolve into unintended consequences.

And that is what I fear with Proposition 11. We seem to have a number of these supposed bipartisan panels selected various processes, and none of them appear to work particularly well.

Proposition 11 is a fairly complicated system and it is not altogether clear that this process would end up producing something that is better than what currently exists. Republicans seem to want it because they believe that the legislature is disproportionately Democratic compared to the state. I looked at the breakdown of the average Democratic vote statewide since 1996 and compared it to the legislative breakdown over the same period, and it is definitely stronger in the latter than the former, but not by as much as people might think.

Reformists such as Common Cause want to see competitive elections believing that they offer better representation. What is interesting is that you can argue the opposite is true as well. Let us say you have a roughly evenly split district. At any given time a large percentage of the population is going have someone representing them who does not fundamentally represent their values. Now let us suppose you have a district that is 70 to 80 percent of one party or another. That party will win 99% of time and more of those residents will have their views represented in the legislature. Which is a better system?

You want to argue that it breeds lack of accountability? Tell that to Carole Migden who lost her seat in the primary to Mark Leno. All that has happened is that you simply shift the place where accountability will occur.

You want to say it is rare for there to be a contested primary, that's fine, but realize that over 90% of incumbents in even marginally competitive seats win. Huge incumbency advantage. I am far from convinced that you are going to see a lot of incumbents go down in a system like this.

Bottom line is that both reformists and Republicans are going to be disappointed when the new system ends up being just like the old system.

I am tired of playing with the machinery of voting, believing somehow we can legislate our way into better governance. We cannot. Let us remove term limits, let us remove campaign finance reform, and all the voters to decide who should be in office. Real change will occur when citizens step up and say no more. And they do this from time to time. In 1994, the voters in the US tired of arrogant and corrupt Democratic leadership voted them out in record numbers.

In 2006, they reserved that election and voted the Democrats back in. This year, right now it appears, you will see large majorities for the Democrats in both houses of congress and probably a Democratic President. In 2004, that didn't even look possible.

Do not underestimate the voters. It does take big problems, but in the end the voters seem to handle those major changes just fine. We have had the current system in California for a long time, what in my opinion has made things worse is term limits and campaign finance. I am not about to put more restrictions on the current process.

---David M. Greenwald reporting