About two months ago, I wrote a column hoping for success but predicting failure for California"s Proposition 11, which would make an independent citizen commission (instead of the state legislature) responsible for determining state legislative district lines. Not allowing self-interested politicians to draw their own districts' lines is a no-brainer, but, as I noted, initiatives like Prop. 11 have failed again and again in recent years. So I'm now crossing my fingers that Prop. 11's slim lead (currently 50.7% to 49.3%) holds up as the last few ballots are counted. After being persuaded by all sorts of misleading arguments to vote against redistricting initiatives in 1982, 1984, 1990, and 2005, it looks like California's voters may have finally done the right thing.
What can we expect if Prop. 11 holds onto its lead and becomes law? First, more competitive races. In the last two general elections, not a single incumbent in the California Legislature lost and not a single seat changed parties. An independent commission presumably would not implement a sweetheart gerrymander that drains all the suspense out of Election Day. Second (and relatedly), fewer extreme politicians. If more districts are more competitive, more candidates for office will have an incentive to run toward the center instead of the edges of the political spectrum. Third, a better correlation between votes and seats won by each party. California's Democrats currently win a higher share of seats in the Legislature than they do of votes cast. Fairer redistricting should prevent such discrepancies from becoming too severe.
Finally, and most importantly, Prop. 11's success shows that redistricting reform is possible. If the largest state in the country -- and one that had rejected four previous redistricting initiatives -- can take away from politicians the power of drawing district lines, then so too can any other state. Excuses that voters don't care about "process" issues or that rabid partisan opposition dooms redistricting initiatives should no longer carry the day. And our democracy should strengthen as a result.