When I was asked by the Sacramento Press Club to debate on behalf of redistricting reform and the top-two primary, it seemed like a fairly painless proposition. I knew that taking the redistricting process away from the state legislature has led to the creation of competitive congressional and legislative districts for the first time since the 1990s. I understood that the top-two primary creates an incentive for candidates in strongly liberal or conservative districts to talk to voters in both parties rather than relying solely on the most ideologically extreme members of their own party for support. For all the plausible counter-arguments I was likely to face, I might as well be calling for a program to give puppies and ice cream to orphans.
In the other corner was Joe Mathews, a very smart guy who would be defending a system that had led to exactly one election out of 265 over the last ten years, where control of a congressional seat had changed from one party to the other. For good measure, he would explain why the ideological gridlock and paralysis caused by hyper-partisanship and gerrymandering was a good thing for the people of California. If I were lucky, maybe he would also stand up on behalf of the far-sighted and visionary legislative accomplishments that had taken place in Sacramento over the past decade. And then he would argue that orphans would develop stronger character if deprived of pets and dessert.
The debate wasn’t quite that one-sided. I talked about how even a dozen or so legislators elected in competitive districts could create common ground, where a governor of either party would work to forge bipartisan consensus. I suggested that candidates who won their campaigns by attracting support from voters of other parties would be more likely to seek out opportunities to cooperate across partisan boundaries after taking office. But I made it clear that these reforms would not magically overcome the state’s political, governmental and policy challenges: all they could do is create opportunities for smart men and women to work together to solve them.
That’s where Joe may have gotten confused. My point was — and is – that changing the rules is only the first step toward making change. I predicted that it may take some time before politicians, who had become accustomed to winning by genuflecting to their party’s ideological base, realized that these new reforms provide an opportunity to reach out to a broader swath of the electorate. We’re already seeing some evidence of progress: in their campaigns for the 31st Congressional District, Republicans Bob Dutton and Gary Miller are reaching out to Democratic voters. In the 30th Congressional District, Democratic rivals Howard Berman and Brad Sherman are working to attract Republican support. But these are just the first signs of broader political change made possible by these new rules.
Joe, as is often the case, was right about one thing. Elections do belong to the voters not the party professionals. And there are lessons to be learned here for California’s citizens, for community groups and their members, for business and labor and grassroots organizations of all ideological stripes. Once voters understand that competitive elections present an opportunity that has not existed for many years, that they have the power to reward politicians who work together and remove those who don’t, that’s when political reform can lead to policy change.
Joe has written that these reforms have failed because fewer voters went to the polls this June than they had four years ago. But the lack of a competitive Republican presidential primary (compared to the Obama-Clinton and McCain-Romney contests in 2008), coupled with Governor Brown’s decision to move the state’s most contentious ballot initiatives to November this year, almost certainly had more to do with lower turnout than voters being frightened, confused, or disgusted by these two new reforms. He says that since the top-two primary did not affect immediate and magical change in other states, we shouldn’t bother to try it in California. But he fails to acknowledge that the combination of those new primary rules with redistricting reform is what creates such potential for progress here. More importantly, he ignores the fact that California’s distinctive geographic and demographic diversity has created a unique set of circumstances where hyper-polarization has flourished even more here than in more homogenous locales. He argued in our debate that moderation is a false solution because policy reform doesn’t come from the “mushy middle”. But principled conservatives and liberals are capable of cooperation as well, and the key to bipartisan consensus in Sacramento and Washington is creating a system that provides incentives rather than punishment for reaching out across party lines.
Joe Mathews is a good person who wants the best for our state. But he and the other skeptics who disparage the reforms that voters have instituted are under-estimating what Californians are capable of. If we give them the tools to select their elected representatives in the type of genuinely competitive elections that redistricting reform and the top-two primary can provide, they will make smart choices. Voters will choose men and women who reflect their ideological preferences but who also understand that people of different beliefs can and should work together on the floor of the State Assembly and in the halls of Congress, as effectively as we do in our neighborhoods and communities every day.
There’s more to be done to make the system work the way it’s supposed to, most notably in the area of campaign finance, increased transparency, and breaking the link between political contributions and government action. But instead of disparaging the critical first steps toward progress that have already been taken, we’re much better off devoting our energies to making them work.