Redrawing Voting Maps

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Last week, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger came out bazookas blazing. In his state-of-the-state address, the Republican fired multiple salvos aimed at reforming a deficit-challenged state which ranks as the world's fifth largest economy.

One of those reforms hits at a national issue that, in a roundabout way, gets to his deficit problem: the lack of truly competitive elections.

Just as 2004 was the best year ever for incumbents in the US House of Representatives (only 8 percent of the 435 seats were considered competitive), so it was in California. Of the state's 153 congressional and legislative seats up for grabs, not one changed parties. About a third of the candidates campaigning for legislatures in many states ran unopposed.

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This lack of competition breeds political entrenchment. In a state like California where the legislature has been controlled by one party for most of 30-plus years (in this case, Democrats), special interests build up cozy relationships with lawmakers. That makes the representatives loathe to bring down the budget-cutting axe upon them.

Mr. Schwarzenegger proposes a radical change that mirrors a slowly developing trend around the country. As in a dozen other states, he wants to take the authority to decide voting district boundaries out of the hands of the state legislature - i.e. the people who most benefit - and give it to a more impartial body. While other states created redistricting commissions to do this work, Schwarzenegger wants a panel of retired judges - supposedly the most impartial citizens of all - to decide the boundaries.

Competitive districts are not just good for budget purposes, but for the free flow of ideas so essential to democracy. They also should produce relatively moderate candidates, because these folks have to satisfy a more diverse group of people.

Yet redistricting has its limits. It can't, for instance, counter demographic and political trends that lead to single party advantages. It's a fact: Urban centers are generally Democratic, and rural areas are generally Republican. Neither can redistricting affect the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which requires boundaries that ensure minority representation.

At the same time, the drive for districts that would encourage competition is at odds with a general principle of district mapping: that voters with common interests be grouped together so that their concerns - be they geographic, economic, or social - can be heard.

Even with its limits, redistricting reform merits further experimentation. A panel of judges or a balanced commission seems preferable to lawmakers using sophisticated computer programs to defend their own turf year after year.

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