California is the state people love to hate. Yes, they have the sun, 1 in 8 of all Americans live there, and their economy is the eighth largest in the world.
But the rest of the country loves to point out their legendary traffic congestion, prison overcrowding, mammoth budget problems and some genuinely goofy legislative proposals.
Still, in recent years, California has quietly developed election reforms that are worthy of looking at for the rest of the nation.
California has upended its entire system of electing politicians, pioneering efforts aimed at creating a more moderate, responsive body of elected officials.
Fresh off a federal government shutdown spawned by deep partisan emotions, that kind of reform is gaining momentum across the country. Republicans who were willing to shut down the government in a quixotic attempt to derail Obamacare came from “safe districts” where voters are overwhelmingly conservative and ready to re-elect members who hold to partisan dogma even when it’s wholly unproductive.
One study says the number of House Republicans from such safe districts has doubled in the past decade. Similar safe seats are abundant for Democrats whose districts are overwhelmingly liberal.
The reason is that state legislatures draw congressional district boundaries every 10 years, meaning whichever party is in power gets to fashion districts that often heavily favor candidates of their party.
In 2008, California voters approved a ballot initiative creating an independent commission to redraw legislative districts, taking the job out of the hands of politicians who can be more interested in holding onto power than drawing boundaries that better represent the cross-section of a state’s voters.
California also set up primaries in which the top two vote-getters — regardless of party — advance to the general election, rather than having party primaries in which the most extreme candidates in each party can get the support they need to win via party activists. The result has been more moderate candidates from both parties winning early primaries and going on to general elections.
Groups such as the League of Women Voters has long advocated for sensible election reforms — ideas that have been mostly ignored by elected officials who want to maintain their power to keep a system favorable to themselves and their party.
California’s early success in election reform is beginning to draw more attention — not from elected officials but from citizens and reform groups who know something is seriously broken in Congress.
State’s may not want to emulate all of California’s reforms, but for starters they should look at ways to create independent commissions to draw political boundaries.
Any system that would create more competitive districts would encourage candidates to seek a middle ground rather than cater to their party’s extremists.