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The End of Gerrymandering

California's successful anti-gerrymandering initiative has national implications.

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Post-election news from California was dominated by Barack Obama's hefty margin over John McCain in the state and passage of Proposition 8, overturning gay marriage. But it was the unheralded passage of another initiative that may make the most history and crimp Democrat hopes for a prolonged era of dominance.

Proposition 11, which passed with the narrowest of margins (50.8 percent), could mark the most serious challenge to the political class by voters since the foiled term limit movement of the 1990s. It strikes at the core pillar of power: incumbency guaranteed through gerrymandered districts. Californians took away from their legislature the power to draw its own districts--a key element of nearly uninterrupted Democratic control since 1970. The task will now be handled by an eight-member commission chosen much like a jury, whose members cannot come from the political class.

Incumbent legislators have lost perhaps their best tool for avoiding competitive elections, long a disgraceful ritual in Sacramento and other state capitals following the once-a-decade census. The legislature still gets to draw districts for U.S. House seats, but here too it must adhere to rules that bind the new commission--namely keeping counties and cities whole as much as possible. Gerrymandered districts will now be more vulnerable to legal challenges.

The practice of drawing less than honest legislative boundaries is as old as the republic itself. It got its name in 1812, when Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry, who went on to become Madison's vice president, signed a redistricting bill that positioned his Jeffersonian Democrats in the legislature to take seats from the Federalists by concentrating their supporters in a minimum number of districts. The Boston Gazette ran a cartoon depicting the new district as a contorted animal and proclaiming the "Gerry-mander, a new species of monster."

Since then, the monster has thrived and been used by successive major parties. New mapping software has made gerrymandering easier and more precise in eliminating competition to incumbents. Republicans often criticized the practice, blaming it as one reason for their time in the wilderness when Democrats controlled the House of Representatives from 1933-1995 with the exception of only two Congresses. This was not without truth, as Democrats dominated state legislatures of the era.

But Republicans have not been without culpability, especially in recent years. The mainstream media has naturally sought to highlight this, especially the "DeLay Plan" to gerrymander Texas to the GOP's advantage mid-decade without even waiting for a new census. This occurred in 2003, when the Texas legislature, newly controlled in both houses by Republicans, redrew lines established by a court in 2001 after legislative deadlock. The gerrymander, which created several more GOP-leaning seats in the Texas delegation, ultimately was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. Incoming Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, then chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, opined: "Every redistricting is a partisan political exercise, but this is going to put it at a level we have never seen. That's the gift that the Supreme Court and Tom DeLay have given us."

California's last redistricting after the 2000 census involved legislative leaders drawing districts to preserve the status quo, ensuring a continued Republican minority and also freezing out likely gains by Latinos. It was not a profile in courage by either party, but it was hardly novel for Sacramento. In 1969, Governor Ronald Reagan wrote a friend complaining of Democratic manipulation of the 1960 redistricting, and calling for "districts created on the basis of geography and community of interest." He vowed to use his veto to try to accomplish that in 1970. A decade later, Reagan had been promoted, and San Francisco Democrat Phil Burton led a gerrymander that aided Democrat dominance in the state throughout the 1980s.

In the 1990s, Governor Pete Wilson offered resolute rejection of Democratic plans, and his support for fairer districts actually led to competitive elections and a rare GOP rally in the California legislature. The game returned to the Democrats early this decade, though, with Governor Gray Davis in charge.

Now, supported by Governor Schwarzenegger, Proposition 11 could have national political implications. Previous attempts to end gerrymandering often relied on using retired judges or other constructs outside of legislatures. But these efforts never gained steam nationally.