Getting the Political Physics Wrong

Who was the biggest spender in this year's ballot initiatives? The Mercury News reports that Stanford physicist Charles T. Munger Jr., who donated $12.6 million to the cause of redistricting reform. He backed Prop 20, which extended a still-being-created citizens commission for redistricting to cover Congressional seats (2008's Prop 11 had established the commission for state legislative districts). He also opposed Prop 27, an effort to repeal the commission.

Prof. Munger is entitled to spend money however he wants. But it says here he mostly wasted his millions. Redistricting reform eliminated a conflict of interest that permitted state legislators to draw their own districts. That's nice. But the reform won't change California politics. It can't.

Why? Well, because Californians have sorted themselves into communities of the like-minded. The California coast is blue Democratic, and the inland red Republican. That reality -- combined with the fact that California, like other states (and other former British colonies), continues to use single-member districts (that is, each district has just one representative) -- means that you can't create more competitive districts (which is the theory behind redistricting reform). And the commission Munger supported with his millions is ill-equipped to do the job. It's not permitted to look at party data. The result: the commission's districts will look very much like the ones we have now, and our legislature will be little different.

Real reform involves broader changes to the shape and size of the legislature and its districts. California needs a larger legislature -- we have just 120 lawmakers to represent 38 million, the same number we had when the state had fewer than one million people. And to get real competition, the state should shift to multi-member regional districts with elections that allocate seats by proportional representation. Those changes would fulfill the goals of the redistricting reformers -- creating more competition and making every vote count.

But Munger shouldn't feel too bad. He's hardly the only person to spend his time and millions on redistricting reform. For California elites, such reform has been such a weird fixation that it amounts to a fever dream. Let's hope that political success will end the fixation, and that reality will set in.  You can't change the legislature by changing who draws the line. You have to change the legislature directly.

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