Reform proxies

October 31, 2005

Voters in Ohio and California have an unusual opportunity this year.

They have a chance not only to rescue their own states from control by an incumbent political monopoly but also to give hope to citizens in Maryland and other states that they can break up ruling monopolies as well.

Ballot initiatives in the Midwestern swing state and the Pacific Coast behemoth call for seizing the power to draw congressional and legislative district maps away from the politicians most affected and placing it in the hands of independent commissions.

The political establishment - mostly Democratic in California's case, mostly Republican in Ohio - is fighting the initiatives with all the money special interest backers can muster. Incumbents know reformer victories in those key states could upset their all-but-guaranteed re-election prospects at home and fuel a drive to inject actual competition into congressional and legislative contests across the country.

We're rooting for both initiatives to pass.

This isn't about favoring one party or the other (though California's Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is a driving force behind the initiative in his state, and not for purely altruistic reasons). The goal is to bust up a system that allows whichever party holds the levers of power - or sometimes an unholy alliance of incumbents from both parties - to draw election districts so safe seats no longer change hands.

Neither the Ohio nor California redistricting proposal is procedurally perfect - taking the ultimate political act out of politics is hard to do. But both approaches are better than the prevailing practice, in which voters are increasingly an afterthought.

Technology allows districts to be drawn according to likely voting patterns so victory for one party or the other is ensured. Thus, Congress and state legislatures are increasingly dominated by lawmakers from their parties' extreme wings with no need for bipartisan appeal. And moderates, those products of competitive districts so essential to compromise, are rapidly becoming extinct. Bitter partisanship rules the day.

Two states can't change the country. But with fledgling reform efforts under way in nearly two dozen more, Ohio and California could provide a mighty boost.

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