When politicians tinker with the laws governing their own elections, one should view their proposals with a guilty-until-proven-innocent attitude.
Almost always, the politicians proclaim that they are acting in the public interest to make elections fairer. And almost always, election law changes would improve the politicians’ chances of holding their offices or advancing up the political food chain.
The most obvious example of the syndrome is redistricting – altering the boundaries of legislative, congressional, city council, county supervisor or school trustee districts to comply with population shifts.
Self-serving gerrymanders had become so common in California that the state’s voters finally shifted the power over legislative and congressional districts from the Legislature to an independent commission.
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The Legislature, however, could recapture its district-drawing power over congressional districts if the Arizona Legislature wins a case now pending before the U.S. Supreme Court that challenges the legitimacy of that state’s redistricting commission.
Election law tinkering goes way beyond redistricting, however.
Legislators and other politicians are constantly changing rules of the election game, and they always alter potential outcomes, as two “reforms” in Southern California illustrate.
In March, Los Angeles voters will decide two ballot measures that would shift local city and school board elections from March of odd-numbered years to even-numbered years, combining them with legislative, congressional, presidential and county government elections.
Herb Wesson, the president of the Los Angeles City Council, is the guiding force behind the proposal, saying he wants to increase what now are abysmally low voter turnouts in city and school elections.
Perhaps so, but Bernard Parks, a former Los Angeles police chief who sits on the council, opposes the change, saying it’s “tilting the playing field in favor of special interests” by raising the cost of running for local offices, and notes that the terms of some incumbents would be extended by 18 months during the transition.
A hundred miles to the south, in San Diego, county supervisors voted the other day to clamp tight limits on the amounts of money political parties can spend on county elections, claiming that the move will reduce special-interest influence.
But will it? At least political parties are known quantities whose sources of funds are matters of record.
Like all contribution limits, San Diego’s version probably will drive special-interest campaign spending underground, into the subterfuge of “independent expenditure committees” that shield politicians from accountability for the motives of their backers.
That’s been the effect at the state and federal levels, and there’s no reason to believe it won’t happen in San Diego.
Call The Bee’s Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, sacbee.com/dan-walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.