CHICAGO - Arnold Schwarzenegger probably will never get to be president, but he may be able to do something far more ambitious, difficult and worthwhile: restore a measure of democracy to our democracy.
In his State of the State address Wednesday, the California governor said he would convene the legislature to address several issues - one of them being the way the legislators hang on to their jobs. California draws congressional and legislative districts the way most states do, with those in power rigging things to stay in power. They allocate voters and geographic areas in such a way as to ensure that whoever won the last time will win the next time, and the next.
This system produces bizarre maps that look like a free-for-all in a lobster tank. But to established officeholders, beauty is as beauty does. In the 2004 elections, Mr. Schwarzenegger noted, "153 of California's congressional and legislative seats were up in the last election and not one - I repeat, not one - changed parties." For incumbent legislators, that's the next best thing to guaranteed life tenure.
But they will have to learn to deal with uncertainty if Mr. Schwarzenegger has his way. He wants to turn the task of setting district boundaries over to an independent panel of retired judges, who would not have a powerful incentive to prevent competitive elections. "They can be drawn fair and honest - district lines that make politicians of both parties accountable to the people," he declared.
His idea addresses a problem that extends far beyond the Golden State. In most of the country, naked partisan gerrymandering is as American as three-card monte. In recent years, the average congressional election has been completely devoid of suspense. In the 2004 elections for the U.S. House of Representatives, only seven incumbent members lost their re-election bids. That was down from eight in 2002.
Patrick Basham of the Cato Institute in Washington says this is the fourth consecutive election in which the incumbent success rate was at least 98 percent. In 2004, of the 435 seats in the House, only 13 shifted from one party to the other - which works out to 3 percent.
Even close elections are rare. In 2004, 95 percent of all victors won by more than 10 percentage points, and 83 percent won by more than 20 percent. Heck, even contested elections are getting harder to find. In 2002, 81 House incumbents lacked an opponent in the general election.
Surveying the campaign in October 2002, The Economist magazine of Britain noted that only about 20 House elections in this broad land could be called competitive. "In any other evenly divided country's lower house, one in every five members of parliament, deputies or assemblymen would be a nervous wreck by this stage," it noted, but "in America, only one in 20 congressmen needs to think about an alternative career."
If you object because your congressional representative votes the wrong way on tax cuts or Iraq, you can always try to vote him out of office. But if you object because it's virtually impossible to vote him out of office, what are you supposed to do? In most places, voting against an incumbent lawmaker is about as effective as petitioning the moon to postpone high tide.
That's why Mr. Schwarzenegger's interest in the subject holds so much promise. If he decides to launch a crusade, he could force the legislators to give up their chokehold on power. If they refuse, thanks to California's liberal rules on ballot initiatives, he could lead a petition drive to hold a referendum and let the voters decide. Previous efforts on that front have fallen short. But they didn't have one of the most dynamic populists in the country hoisting their banner.
Critics doubt the governor's motives, since any change is likely to help his fellow Republicans, who are in the minority in Sacramento. But the truth is that GOP officeholders would be just as threatened by the change as Democrats. Mr. Schwarzenegger should find it easy to cast the issue as a different kind of partisan fight: the incumbent party against the people. And success in California could ignite a nationwide movement.
Voters can see what Mr. Schwarzenegger sees, which is that there's something wrong when elected representatives are immune to mere ballots. Unless efforts like this one prevail, we'll wake up one morning to find that our elections have become a Schwarzenegger movie: True Lies.
Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.