Another tremor of reform rattled a few political windows in California last week. Whether that portends a full scale quake and the collapse of the fortress the two political parties have erected to keep out invaders remains to be seen.
With last Tuesday’s test of the new open primary system – where all candidates appeared on a single ballot and the top two vote-getters from each district advanced to the general election regardless of party affiliation – California has taken another small step towards more political choice for voters and more accountability and competition for our politicians.
Based on an analysis of the Cook Political Report’s partisan voter indices by the political reform group No Labels, a second tremor, redistricting of Assembly, State Senate and Congressional seats by an independent citizens commission made nearly sixty percent of districts more competitive than they were just two years ago. There was also promising anecdotal evidence that some of this year's crop of candidates made more of an effort to appeal to the broader electorate instead of just catering to their bases.
For example, there was a decline in the number of candidates in this election willing to sign special interest group pledges – which are often used to bind candidates to rigid ideological positions once they are in office. The number of lawmakers in California who signed the Americans for Tax Reform pledge to never raise taxes dropped by a full third compared to 2010.
California voters have a wider variety of choices this November. Out of the 53 Congressional districts in California, 12 will be marked by unconventional match ups in the general election. Six districts will have contests between two Democrats, two races will be between two Republicans, and four districts will have a Democrat or Republican facing an independent challenger.
This pair of innovations may give California voters, more than 25% registered as Independents or with a third party, more incentive to go to the polls, knowing that they’ll be able to choose between more than just left and right wing partisans. That point has not yet been reached, as evidenced by the low voter turnout in Tuesday's primary.
But it’s a start. California’s latest reforms show significant promise and could set the standard for increasing competition in politics in other parts of the country. States needn’t follow California's exact path, but every state should be working to build a system that allows less partisan, more solution driven, pragmatic candidates to compete in elections.
In the last few decades, California has become a visible example of dysfunctional politics in America. It’s been a depressing comedown from the trailblazer status we enjoyed for much of the 20th century. Tuesday’s primaries offer some hope that California may once again show America the way to the future.
Sragow is a veteran California political strategist and public policy analyst.