Election clerk Michael Daniels takes a vote-by-mail ballot from a voter… (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated…)
While most of the country was focused on the back-alley brawl of Wisconsin's recall election Tuesday, a quieter but equally important political revolution was unfolding here in California.
Two recent voting reforms — one that changed the way legislative and congressional districts are drawn and another that sends the top two finishers in a primary on to the general election regardless of party affiliation — drew little interest outside the circles of obsessed political insiders. But thanks to these two procedural modifications, California politics have been profoundly altered — for the better.
Over the years, the two major parties in California have retreated from the middle of the political playing field toward their respective ideological end zones. A decade of gerrymandering created such safe districts for members of both parties that legislators knew they would never lose a general election to a candidate from the other party and could, in most cases, serve until they were forced out by either term limits or infirmity.
Removing the power of redistricting from politicians, who have an incentive to create safe districts for themselves, and giving it to an independent citizens commission was an imperfect way of addressing gerrymandering. But it has already begun to force some incumbents of both parties out of their comfort zones by creating a number of districts throughout the state in which one party doesn't command an overwhelming majority. In such districts, legislators face legitimate competition to retain their offices.
Along with redistricting reform, the other antidote for the hyper-partisanship that has gripped state politics is the new top-two primary, which allows voters to cast a ballot for their preferred candidate even if that candidate is a member of another party.
Candidates will now be forced to reach out to a wider range of voters both to secure a spot in the runoff and to compete effectively in a general election campaign. Rather than limiting their communications efforts to the base of their own parties, politicians will have a strong incentive to talk to centrist voters of both parties as well as those who have no partisan preference.
In districts that tilt strongly Republican or Democratic, the general election may well offer two candidates from the same party, but this is likely to push candidates to the middle because candidates will be trying to attract general election voters from the other party as well as from their own.
The result is likely to be a growing number of elected officials who not only feel obligated to their strongest supporters but have developed relationships with much broader swaths of the electorate. Less dependent on the strongest liberal and conservative interests in state politics for support in their campaigns, legislators and congressmen will be more likely to resist pressure from those same interests to automatically reject efforts toward compromise and conciliation.
Neither reform guarantees that a larger number of moderate candidates will be elected to office. The new rules create opportunities for centrist politicians, but they guarantee only elections that are less predictable and more competitive. But the advantage is likely to fall to candidates who make the effort to understand the aspirations and apprehensions of all their constituents, not just their ideological clones. A principled conservative or liberal office-seeker has just as much incentive to reach across party lines for support from non-traditional allies. Ultimately, even if the measures don't lead to more moderate candidates, they are likely to lead to the election of candidates who are more responsive to the concerns of the voters.
None of this will happen overnight. The first step toward progress is changing the rules, but there are no magic answers. The defeat of prominent independent candidates in San Diego, Ventura and elsewhere demonstrates that change will come slowly to a political system that has grown ossified after years of misuse and neglect. But as Californians become more familiar with the new tools that have been provided to them, they will gradually begin to use those tools to take back control over a system from which they have been excluded for far too long.
Redistricting and the top-two primary create an opportunity for more effective government. But it is ultimately up to California voters to take advantage of the opportunity they've been given.
Dan Schnur is director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC and former chairman of the California Fair Political Practices Commission.