The GOP Orphans Its Referendum
By Peter Schrag
So the Republicans have formally thrown in the towel on their referendum to block use of the new state Senate maps drawn last year by the presumably non-partisan Citizens Redistricting Commission.
The main point of the referendum, the Republicans said, was to block use of the maps in this year’s election cycle. When the state Supreme Court ordered the maps to be used, their campaign people said, there was no point in pursuing it. The measure, Proposition 40, will however remain on the ballot. It’s just that there’ll be no GOP campaign.
But that may not end the confusion since, given the peculiarities of the California referendum process, a “no” vote is in fact a “yes” vote. Any voter wanting to reject the referendum in November, increase the Democrats’ chances of gaining real control in the Senate, or punish the GOP for attacking a process that it had once supported will have to be wily enough to vote ”yes.”
The absence of a GOP campaign may in fact increase the number of no votes as much as it reduces it. If it succeeds, it will require the court to draw new maps for 2014.
But was the battle ever worth the candle? The conventional wisdom held that with the new maps, the Democrats might well get the two-thirds majority necessary in November to pass a tax increase and overcome the effective veto the Republican minority had held all these many years.
But since the GOP would probably continue to have its veto in the Assembly, the chance of any significant tax increase making it through the legislature were slim anyway. Nor is there any certainty that the austere Gov. Jerry Brown would ever approve any hefty new tax.
More important maybe, there’s a real question whether the Democrats themselves, even with a super-majority, could muster all the votes necessary from their own members to enact any significant tax increase.
The existing party split had always given each party cover from real accountability. Failure and dysfunction was blamed on “the legislature” or an unspecified “partisanship.” But would members from marginal districts – even in the face of pressure from pubic employee unions and other interest groups – be willing to risk their seats with a vote for higher taxes? In the current political climate that’s a long way from certain.
And would the Democratic supermajority even last past the 2014 election, when a whole different set of Senate seats will be in play? According to some analyses, the 20 (of 40) seats that are up this year are more likely to tilt toward the Democrats than the 20 that will be up then.
At bottom the reformers probably always expected too much when they argued for shifting the decennial redistricting process from the legislature to the commission. Most of the partisanship they deplored didn’t begin in Sacramento; it began – begins – in the districts. It begins with the way voters sort themselves out geographically – by income, by class, by ethnicity and thus by political preferences.
Any redistricting process, if it’s to draw compact districts, honor community integrity, and comply with the other requirements of state and federal law, thus will be unable to create many genuinely competitive bi-partisan districts. The commission itself was prohibited from looking at party registration or, despite the earnest hopes of the reformers, to make the creation of competitive districts one of its objectives.
Whatever changes in party composition will come in Sacramento after November thus will be driven largely by changes in the electorate, most particularly the increasing numbers of Latinos on the rolls.
It’s hardly a secret that Latinos have been alienated by the GOP ever since Gov. Pete Wilson made immigrant-bashing a central theme of his 1994 re-election campaign. The national Republican Party has reminded them of that hostility again and again in the years since. And it’s still doing it.
At bottom, the GOP in its attempt to block use of the new maps – first the challenge to the Congressional map, rejected by the court last year, then the referendum on the Senate map – was, at bottom, no more than an effort to hold back the tide. In the past two decades, the GOP has steadily lost its share of party registration, not so much to the Democrats, but to the independents.
California has been immune to the attempts of Republicans in other states to dampen the turnout of poor and minority voters through the requirements that voters show photo ID documents at the polls or in applying for absentee ballots. It wouldn’t work in this blue majority-minority state.
But the attack on the new political maps and the accompanying demand, summarily rejected by the court, that the 2001 gerrymander be kept in place, was the nearest thing to it. That tactic, too, sought to reduce the power of minority and young voters – to, in effect, freeze the past. Abandoning the referendum was a nudge toward reality, but only a nudge.
Peter Schrag, whose exclusive weekly column appears every Monday in the California Progress Report, is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future and California: America’s High Stakes Experiment. His new book, Not Fit for Our Society: Nativism, Eugenics, Immigration is now on sale. View his archived columns here.