Washington Should Follow California's Lead on Political Reform

We have just witnessed a sad chapter in America's exceptional history. Both major parties became stuck in partisan gridlock trying to deal with the demands of a faction of one party. All of this occurring while foreign powers openly debated how much longer they want to depend on the U.S. as the center of the financial world. People in every foreign capital breathed a sigh of relief when a solution was reached, but it was not our finest moment.

While California is often chided for its progressive world view, the rest of the country should pay attention to two of the smarter things we have done to reform the electoral process, increase voter participation, and cut down on legislative stalemates. For much of the last 50 years you were more likely to lose an election as a member of the Supreme Soviet than you were as an incumbent member of Congress. This is bad for Congress and bad for America. That is why a bipartisan coalition came together to pass two important reforms -- independent redistricting and the top-two open primary system.

Why are these two reforms so important? For the last 50 years, state legislatures have quietly signed off on the "Legislative Full Employment Act." This was not the goal of our founding fathers.

Independent redistricting: Most state legislatures draw districts that are overwhelmingly dominated by one party to protect incumbents and the party in power. This results in elected officials who don't have to worry about campaigning in their district because, with a 30 to 35 percent voter registration edge, they already know they are going to win re-election. Elected officials then worry less about their constituents and more about keeping party leadership and special interests happy. This is a big part of why the nation saw the embarrassing brinksmanship over raising the debt limit. Too many representatives are worried about angering their leadership or special interests and not enough are focusing on governing responsibly.

Strikingly, the minority party is often all too willing to sign off on gerrymandered districts because even if it casts them as a minority party for the next ten years, the gerrymandered lines assure the minority members that they will have safe seats. In California we changed all of this with a simple ballot initiative in 2008 that created the nonpartisan California Citizens Redistricting Commission.

Open primary: The top-two open primary system allows people to vote for whomever they want regardless of party affiliation. The top two vote getters then go into a runoff in the general election. In a closed party primary system, the more extreme candidate usually wins the primary because the election is typically dominated by a smaller number of more ideological voters. Not surprisingly, when the left and the right sent their most ideological members to the Sacramento, the result was often noisy gridlock. California now has some of the most competitive districts in the country, and that increases accountability and voter participation.

To successfully compete with China, Brazil and Germany, the U.S. needs a first-tier government to oversee its first-tier economy. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote that states are the laboratories of democracy. Now that California has successfully incubated these needed political reforms, and with little prospect for more constructive bipartisanship in Washington, it is high time America took a careful look at California's bold reforms.