Why did redistricting reform fail in California and Ohio in 2005? New survey research provides great data and a lot of insight

Some detailed new research was discussed recently, in a presentation by Celinda Lake and David Mermin, of Lake Research Partners. The reseach, sponsored by the JEHT Foundation, looked at voters in Ohio and California in the recent special elections in both states, to determine why it was that redistricting reform measures failed in both states.

While this research is focused on what happened in Ohio and California in the 2005 fall special elections, I believe that the material contained here is of critical importance for redistricting reform efforts that continue to unfold in both states. In particular, there continue to be efforts in California to attempt redistricting reform this year, especially the proposal by Senator Lowenthal (D-Long Beach), SCA3. Here is more about the Lowenthal proposal, and about the efforts of a coalition of groups to work with Lowenthal to improve his proposal. I wrote about redistricting reform in California in my recent opinion column “Governor Should Hold To Promise of Reform”, and will be soon revisiting this issue.

The research is detailed in a package of slides, available here as a pdf file. The research is based on surveys of 600 registered voters from Ohio, and 800 registered voters in California. Some key findings from the research report and the briefing:

  1. In both states the redistricting reform efforts were viewed as highly partisan, but in different ways in both Ohio and California. Look in particular at slides 24 (Ohio) and 29 (California). In both states, there are huge partisan divisions in the vote — and there is a lack of support for redistricting measures from independents.
  2. The partisanship data from Ohio (slide 24) in particular show that one of the conventional wisdoms about the Ohio measure was that if only more Democrats had turned out to vote, redistricting reform would have passed. Note that only 51% of Democrats supported the measure!
  3. Some of the messages and themes about redistricting were striking:

    • Three important themes (slide 53) arose in both states: the argument that it is a conflict of interest for legislators to draw their own lines; that voters should choose their representatives, not representatives choosing their voters; and that we need to keep communities together.
    • Two themes did not work (slides 55 and 56): corruption is not connected to redistricting, and voters do not see competition as a compelling case, apparently because they see competition as producing more advertising and negative campaigns.

As to general lessons, during the briefing, Celinda Lake argued that the following five lessons arose from their detailed research:

  1. There exist strong shared values around redistricting reform.
  2. There is a desire for change and reform, generally.
  3. The strongest values exist around giving voters a voice, accountability, and keeping communities together.
  4. The weak arguments, that need to be worked on for future redistricting reform efforts, regard the connections between redistricting, corruption and competition.
  5. Future efforts need to position the redistricting arguments in simple terms, and to insure that they are framed as independent and not partisan efforts.

There is a lot here (sixty slides) and a lot for reformers to digest before moving ahead in any state with further redistricting reform efforts. This is wonderful research, and thanks to the JEHT Foundation for funding this research and making the product of their research efforts available to those interested in election reform. We need much more research like this in the future, so that we can best understand how to focus and frame election reform efforts, especially those that use the initiative process.