Over the weekend, Markos of DailyKos, pondering his California absentee ballot, posed a very pertinent question: why shouldn’t he vote for Proposition 77, Arnold Schwarzenneger’s redistricting reform initiative? Yes, he suggests, it might have a short-term negative impact on Democratic margins in the congressional delegation and the state legislature, but if it contributes to a national redistricting reform movement, it’s likely to help Democrats nationally, particularly if Democratic-backed reform initiatives in Ohio (this year) and Florida (next year) succeed as well.I can’t answer Markos’ question definitively, but do want to draw attention to peculiarities of the California initiative that make it different from those in the other states. I’ve written about this subject extensively here and here (note that the first piece was written before the Ohio initiative got underway, while the second was written before the California initiative overcame a judicial challenge), so I’ll just hit the high points.Prop 77 relies heavily on the assumption that nonpartisan redistricting is (a) feasible, and (b) will produce a more balanced map. Both these assumptions are very questionable. But that’s why the initiative focuses so heavily on who draws the maps, rather than what criteria they use. The Ohio initiative (and for that matter, the Florida initiative that’s now in a legal limbo) requires use of partisan voter registration and performance data to create an overall redistricting plan that maximizes both competitive districts and statewide partisan fairness, while the California initiative prohibits use of such data and does not make competitiveness or partisan fairness criteria at all. The one state that has successfully applied this take-the-politics-out approach to redistricting is Iowa, but Iowa, with its relatively homogenous population, stable partisan balance, and strong “good government” tradition, is not California, by a long shot. So in the end, Prop 77 is pretty much a leap into the unknown. Thus, for Democrats in particular, the decision on Prop 77 is pretty much a matter of how you feel about the current map and the system that created it. But there’s one major piece of misinformation circulating (it’s very visible in the comment thread after Markos’ post) that needs to be refuted: the idea that the current map is a standard-brand partisan gerrymander that maximized Democratic seats. Not so. For both the congressional delegation and the state legislature, the Democratic leadership pursued an incumbent-protection strategy that all but eliminated competitive districts. Yes, it created a floor under Democratic majorities, but also created a ceiling. In effect, the map traded potential opportunities to win new Democratic seats for the assurance that incumbents wouldn’t have to worry about general elections. (Another motive, according to everybody I’ve talked to, was to enable primary challenges to centrist Democrats in the state legislature, many of which succeeded). California’s situation is in sharp contrast to that of Ohio and Florida, where the reigning Republicans did indeed focus on partisan advantage to the exclusion of virtually every other factor.In other words, the Democratic advantage in California’s congressional delegation and state legislature is the product of an unavoidable Democratic advantage among voters, not of Democratic control of redistricting. And there’s no particular reason to believe the system established by Prop 77 would change that reality. The bottom line for me is that I don’t like the system set out in Prop 77, but I also don’t think partisanship is a good reason for opposing it, particularly since the current map is so egregiously aimed at eliminating competition altogether. I hope this analysis helps Markos and other California Dems make their decision. All redistricting reforms are not created equal; nor is the status quo in Democratic and Republican-controlled states the same. It’s entirely possible to oppose Prop 77 while supporting the initiatives in Ohio and Florida on substantive grounds, but not because California’s current system is particularly good for Democrats, or for democracy.
TDS Strategy Memos
Latest Research from:
By Ed Kilgore
Watching an intra-Democratic argument on voting rights strategy intensify in Washington, I offered some advice to both sides at New York:
There has been an underlying disagreement within the mostly Democratic coalition favoring voting rights that was nicely captured in this New York Times report on Friday:
“A quiet divide between President Biden and the leaders of the voting rights movement burst into the open on Thursday, as 150 organizations urged him to use his political mettle to push for two expansive federal voting rights bills that would combat a Republican wave of balloting restrictions … In private calls with voting rights groups and civil rights leaders, White House officials and close allies of the president have expressed confidence that it is possible to ‘out-organize voter suppression,’ according to multiple people familiar with the conversations.”
Both sides in this argument are partly wrong. Those who expect Joe Biden to force the For the People Act or the John Lewis Voting Rights Act through the Senate via some major revision in the ability to filibuster are probably expecting the impossible. Yes, perhaps if Biden personally and insistently and abrasively lobbied Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema to abandon her very consistent defense of the filibuster, up to and including encouragement of a primary challenge to her when she is up for reelection in 2024, she might decide her current and very insistent independent-maverick “branding” isn’t going to keep working for her. But Joe Manchin? He would be thrilled to get attacked by a Democratic president or Democratic advocacy groups for insisting that he won’t support voting-rights measures unless at least some Republicans support them. His state is so very red that the threat of a primary challenge to the sole remaining successful West Virginia Democrat is a laugher.
Short of a nuclear attack on West Virginia, it’s hard to identify anything Biden might do to Manchin that wouldn’t run a high risk of backfiring. And he does need Manchin on the reconciliation bills Democrats are using to get around the filibuster to enact Biden’s social and economic agenda. It’s just too bad voting-rights bills don’t qualify for reconciliation.
Yes, it is intensely frustrating that Biden cannot bring himself to come out forthrightly for filibuster reform, but it probably doesn’t matter since it is not happening unless the Democratic Senate Conference gets bigger, making senators like Manchin and Sinema irrelevant on the subject. So at some point voting-rights advocates need to focus on that goal.
At the same time, White House claims that Democrats can “out-organize voter suppression” are partially wrong as well. Yes, restrictive provisions like voter-ID requirements, limits on voting by mail, and even voter-roll purges can be countered and perhaps overcome by intensive efforts to educate and energize the voters Republicans are trying to keep from the polls. But you cannot out-organize a partisan gerrymander, or a law that lets election officials or state legislators overturn the outcome of an election after votes are cast.
Voting-rights advocates will eventually have to play the cards dealt to them by the system as it currently exists. That means refraining from too much anger aimed at Democratic pols who have little choice but to concede defeat on some legislation and concentrate on legislation (i.e., those reconciliation bills with many items vital to the people whose voting rights are also under attack) they can enact with no margin for error in the Senate and little in the House. At the same time, Biden and his staff and Democratic “pragmatists” in Congress should never for a moment be cavalier about the legislative obstacles they face in defending democracy itself. They may have to accept a tactical defeat on voting rights in this Congress. But they should never, ever, give up on making it happen later if not sooner.