Oct. 21, 2013
California has often led the nation – sometimes in the wrong direction. A few years ago, California’s leaders and the unintended consequences of voter-approved referenda had led to partisan paralysis and near-bankruptcy in Sacramento. Local governments were cutting services. The state’s infrastructure and once-mighty higher education system were in shambles. But thanks to a series of electoral and budgeting reforms, the state appears to have turned things around. Its legislature, the New York Times reports, is now the most moderate – and the most Democratic – in memory:
In the past month, California has been the stage for a series of celebrations of unlikely legislative success — a parade of bill signings that offered a contrast between the shutdown in Washington and an acrimony-free California Legislature that enacted laws dealing with subjects including school financing, immigration, gun control and abortion.
Two reforms, pushed in part by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, were designed to remedy the tendencies toward extremism in the electoral system:
- Redistricting reform: Drawing legislative districts was put in the hands of an independent commission, reducing the number of “safe seats” in which the only competition is in primaries dominated by ideological extremes.
- Open primaries: California did away with party primaries. Instead, everyone runs and votes in a single primary, with Republicans and Democrats on the same ballot. The top two vote-getters compete in a runoff. Sometimes it will be two Democrats or two Republicans. In both the primary and the runoff, the advantage goes to the candidates who can capture voters in the middle of the spectrum, not the extremes.
The system reduces the power of big-money donors and the national party. Candidates are forced to think first about representing their district, not pleasing out-of-state interests. The results, so far, are encouraging:
“You see Republicans voting for immigration reform, you see Democrats voting for streamlining environmental regulations,” said Dan Schnur, the director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. “You never would have seen that before.”
Other reforms helped as well. Term limits, which had resulted in a legislature packed with novices easily manipulated by special interests, were loosened, as were handcuffs on tax and spending policies imposed by referendum. It’s also true that California Republicans have become as marginalized in state government as Massachusetts Republicans here. But the Democrats, beginning with Gov. Jerry Brown, have become more moderate than their predecessors. The Times piece notes that 39 out of 40 bills the state Chamber of Commerce had branded as “job killing” were defeated this year.
Unintended consequences being what they are, it’s too soon to consider California’s turn toward political moderation an unconditional success. But it’s not too soon to start talking about how other states and Washington – that capital of gridlock – can learn from the Golden State’s example.