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For post-shutdown reform ideas, many look to California

Anger over the government shutdown sparks new interest in the state's efforts to create a more moderate, less partisan body of elected officials.

October 18, 2013|By Evan Halper
  • Park rangers watch as visitors return to the Lincoln Memorial after the U.S. government shutdown. The crisis sparked interest in reform efforts pioneered by California to create a more moderate body of elected officials.
Park rangers watch as visitors return to the Lincoln Memorial after the… (Brendan Smialowski, AFP/Getty…)

WASHINGTON — Not long ago, California was so deep in crisis that top officials pleaded with Washington for a financial bailout. A lot has changed. Now, in the wake of the federal government shutdown, many in Washington are looking to California for guidance.

Over the last several years, California has upended its entire system of electing politicians. The state has become a national pioneer in efforts aimed at creating a more moderate, responsive body of elected officials less inclined to dig partisan trenches.

Whether those plans have worked remains unclear. Nevertheless, the government shutdown has prompted a surge of interest in the state's new system. Efforts to import similar revisions elsewhere are in full swing.

"A crisis like this leads people to think about ways we can avoid it ever happening again," said Tim Storey, an elections analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures. "There is going to be a lot of discussion about these type of reforms now."

"I anticipate a wave of measures will come when most legislatures get back into session in January," Storey said.

New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, a billionaire, gave $250,000 to back the 2008 California ballot measure that stripped politicians of their power to draw political boundaries. He suggested amid the shutdown that other such efforts were high on his national agenda. Bills in Congress to create more competitive voting districts nationwide — long dismissed as quixotic — are sparking discussion.

In the swing states of Ohio and Florida, volunteers at League of Women Voters offices — which for years has promoted unglamorous proposals to change the system by which voting district boundaries get drawn — say calls are streaming in from curious voters.

"If there is a bright spot in Washington and this congressional showdown, it is that voters are connecting the dots and starting to realize we have to eliminate gerrymandering as part of the American vocabulary," said Deirdre Macnab, president of League of Women Voters of Florida.

California made two big changes in its election system. The 2008 ballot initiative aimed to end the kind of political deal-making that protected almost every congressional and legislative incumbent. It created a nonpartisan commission to draw the lines. Supporters argued that a nonpartisan system would create more competitive districts that would encourage candidates to seek a middle ground.

Then the state went further.

At the behest of then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, California also scrapped partisan primaries. They were replaced with an open system in which voters of any political affiliation can participate. The top two candidates, regardless of their party, advance to the general election.

Whether either change achieved its advertised goals remains hotly debated.

The new district lines did bring many new faces to the congressional delegation, but did far less to reduce partisanship.

Regardless of who draws the lines, the electorate remains polarized politically and geographically, with liberal Democrats concentrated in parts of the state and conservative Republicans in others. The number of districts actually open to a centrist candidate is small.

Legislative gridlock did end in California, but not because moderates flooded into the statehouse. Instead, Democrats picked up a supermajority of seats, giving them unbridled control of Sacramento.

"A strong debate is raging over whether any of these things make a difference," said Rick Hasen, an elections expert at UC Irvine School of Law. "Do they lead to centrists more willing to compromise? The early evidence from California is no."

Still, supporters of election changes remain optimistic about the state's moves and the chances of similar ideas taking root elsewhere.

Like Bloomberg and Schwarzenegger, many backers of the ideas are moderate or liberal Republicans who feel displaced in the current system.

Mark Frohnmayer, president of an electric car company, has launched an effort to gather signatures in Oregon for a measure that would redesign the primary system to one more closely resembling California's.

For Frohnmayer, it's personal. His father, David, was Oregon's GOP gubernatorial nominee in 1990. A moderate and former president of the University of Oregon, he lost after declining to make policy pledges to conservative activists. They rallied behind an independent candidate who became a spoiler, and the Democrat won.

But while that experience sparked Mark Frohnmayer's interest in electoral change, it's the government shutdown that he hopes will attract others.

"The debacle in Washington is putting front and center in people's minds just how broken the system is," he said.

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