As independent redistribution shows, changing rules can change the results
Current events in Washington and California prove once again that politicians are changing the rules of politics to gain an advantage.
The conflict of the day in Washington these days is the democratic bill – adopted by the House but suspended in the Senate – to revise the voting procedures.
The legislation would replace a wide variety of state election laws and is necessary, according to President Joe Biden and other Democratic figures, to counter voter suppression in Republican-dominated states.
Republicans counter that Democrats are less interested in protecting the rights of voters than in changing procedures to improve Democratic prospects in future elections.
One section of the legislation is aimed at redistributing Congressional seats after each census, a process that has helped Republicans increase their numbers in Congress and which, unless changed, likely will again.
In most states, legislatures decide how congressional districts are designed to equalize their populations and a few decades ago Republicans and conservative political groups began to focus on electing state legislators. with the clear aim of influencing the results of the redistribution.
Democrats were caught napping as the GOP made big state-level gains and used its advantage to increase its strength in Congress after the 2000 and 2010 censuses. Republicans now control 30 of the assemblies legislative bodies and have full control, including governorships, in 23 states – both numbers far exceed the number of blue states like California.
While Democrats denounce Republican gerrymanders as unfair and undemocratic, the solution, they say, is to force states to create bipartisan, independent commissions to draw districts, like California has done.
Their advocacy for an independent redistribution, however, is a recent epiphany, only emerging after being sidetracked by Republicans, as the history of the redistribution in California shows.
When controlling the process in California, Democrats openly attracted districts to their advantage, the most notorious example being a major change in congressional seats after the 1980 census, orchestrated by the late San Francisco congressman, Phil Burton.
The districts that Burton drew then-Gov. Jerry Brown and the endorsed Democratic lawmakers – one of whom benefited his brother, John – were so oddly drawn that Burton described them, ironically, as “my contribution to modern art.”
Almost three decades later, when two voting measures were proposed to move California’s redistribution of the legislature to an independent commission, Democratic leaders fiercely opposed it. The main opponent was President Nancy Pelosi, who has since magically transformed into a staunch advocate of independent redistribution in her voting rights bill.
The wrangling over independent redistribution, along with other electoral procedures, once again proves the adage that changing the rules of the game, whether it’s politics or baseball, often changes the results.
Another example of the syndrome is currently playing out in California.
Four years ago, the dominant Democrats on Capitol Hill changed the rules governing recall elections with the clear intention of helping Orange County state senator Josh Newman postpone a recall.
The revised rules merged the recall election with the June 2018 state primary elections, the Democrats hoped, thus increasing voter turnout and therefore Newman’s chances of victory. The ploy failed and Newman was recalled, although he returned to his seat in 2020.
This year, Gov. Gavin Newsom faces a recall and under the rules written to help Newman, the recall election would likely take place in October or November. However, efforts are underway on Capitol Hill to hold the election a month or two earlier, possibly in September, based on the theory that Newsom would then be in a better position to win.
Newsom is likely to win no matter when the election is held, but politicians being politicians, changing the rules of the game to gain an advantage is the status quo, regardless of the party.