In a nutshell, the initiative puts control of the process of redrawing statewide legislative districts every ten years in the hands of an independent, 14-member panel consisting of five Democrats, five Republicans, and four independents or minor-party voters.
The California legislature has long controlled redistricting by “gerrymandering” election districts so that incumbent candidates or candidates from the same party get elected time and again. As Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger jokingly remarked, there is more turnover in the Habsburg Monarchy than in the California legislature, as evidenced by the fact that in the last two elections, not a single district changed party hands.
By preventing real competition, gerrymandering has also produced a legislature that is starkly polarized. California is one of the few states that require a two-thirds majority to pass a budget, and every year brings an agonizing struggle to reach agreement between the liberal Democratic majority and the conservative Republican minority. This year has been no exception, with the legislature breaking all records for tardiness in passing a budget.
A fair redistricting plan would, in theory, provide for election districts that are more politically diverse and balanced, requiring candidates to appeal to a wider range of voters to get elected. As districts stand now, they provide politicians of both parties with hand-picked constituencies that share their views and automatically support them in election after election. More diverse election districts would, in turn, produce a legislature less sharply divided along ideological lines, more centrist, and more likely to cooperate on things like budgets.
What does this have to do with non-partisan independents, aside from the good government benefits that might come from adopting a fair redistricting plan?
Independent, decline-to-state voters – 20% of the California electorate – are left out when partisan politicians draw up self-serving election districts. For the first time in California history, independent and minor-party voters would be accounted for in any redistricting plan and given a real voice. In addition, they would be in a position to prevent Republicans and Democrats from colluding to create “safe” districts where only their candidates can get elected.
On a more strategic level, Proposition 11 will help put independent voters on the political map at a time when their numbers are growing nationwide and they are starting to exert unprecedented influence. Prop 11 is a significant step toward a recognition of independent voters as a constituency with its own agenda and right to representation.
Powerful forces in California, mostly Democratic, oppose redistricting reform. They claim that Prop 11 is just an attempt, in the name of good government, to elect more Republicans (which fairly drawn election districts might do).
This objection should ring hollow to independents because most would rather see Republicans elected to office fairly than Democrats elected unfairly. In any case, independents want an opportunity to support the candidate they deem best qualified, from any party. As long as gerrymandered districts deprive them of a voice, that isn’t possible. Proposition 11 would give them that voice.