Editorial: Redistricting reform – or lack of it – is a game changer

Published: Sunday, Feb. 10, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 6E
Last Modified: Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013 - 6:01 pm

Credit the Republicans' national campaign apparatus for figuring out the importance of state elections, something we in Sacramento witness whenever the Legislature is in session.

Credit California voters for wisely going their own independent way.

As many political commentators have noted, Democrats running for House seats received 1.4 million more votes than Republican congressional candidates nationally. But the GOP retained control of the House by a 234 to 201 margin.

Sam Wang, a Princeton professor of molecular biology and neuroscience, who delves into politics, explained the reason in last Sunday's New York Times: "artful drawing of district boundaries."

In other words, Republicans retained control of the House because Republican legislators and governors cooked district lines to suit their political ends. Republicans were able to gerrymander because they control most statehouses.

Wang started with what he called "the naive standard that the party that wins more than half the votes should get at least half the seats." Arizona, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin "failed to clear even this low bar."

In North Carolina, for example, Democratic congressional candidates won 51 percent of the vote. Instead of claiming seven of North Carolina's 13 congressional seats, Democrats won only four seats to the Republicans' nine.

Wang identified 10 states that were "out of whack." In seven of those states, Republicans drew the maps. In those seven states, Republicans received 16.7 million votes to the Democrats' 16.4 million votes.

Despite that relatively narrow gap, the seven states elected 73 Republicans and 34 Democrats.

The Republican State Leadership Committee, an independent campaign organization, spent more than $25 million to elect Republicans to state office. Its chairman, Republican strategist Edward Gillespie, understands that whichever party controls state legislatures and governor's offices draws congressional boundaries.

Despite the GOP's failure to win the White House or U.S. Senate, Republicans control 30 governor's offices and most state legislatures.

Democrats control California, but this state was "surprisingly absent from the guilty list," Wang noted. Indeed, Democratic congressional candidates won 62 percent of the vote, and Democrats won 38 of the state's 53 seats, coinciding with the split of voters.

That result is a testament to the wisdom of the voters who approved initiatives stripping legislators of the power of drawing district boundaries and handing the task over to an independent commission.

Charles Munger Jr., the wealthy Republican activist, deserves credit, too. He spent more than $13 million in support of independent redistricting, over the objections of Republican leaders, and yes, The Bee's editorial board. We argued in 2010 that the newly formed independent redistricting commission should first demonstrate its ability to fairly redraw legislative districts before being given additional power to draw congressional lines. As it turns out, we were overly cautious.

Now, we look to other states to follow California's lead.

For all the problems caused by initiatives, states that embrace direct democracy are the only ones that will establish independent redistricting commissions. Politicians never willingly give up power, for obvious reasons.

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