Right now, it is hard to imagine Congress transforming into a productive bipartisan institution. But the Legislature in California has demonstrated the possibility of such a transformation. In doing so, it exemplifies the kind of governance innovations that the United States badly needs today.
Over the course of a generation, governance in California mutated into a vitriolic stalemates. While the state grew in population and diversity, decision-making concentrated in the state Capitol in Sacramento. Eventually, narrow interest groups and their allied party leaders dominated the governing process. The electoral system – with gerrymandered districts and thus a complete focus on the primaries – encouraged intransigence and discouraged compromise.
The resulting gridlock thwarted progress on important policy decisions on key issues, including education, criminal justice, and economic development. The routine act of passing a budget – nearly all of it to maintain existing programs and policies – became a bitter negotiation, “leveraging” one party’s agenda against another’s. This tension and the dysfunction it created contributed to California’s 2003 vote to recall Democratic governor Gray Davis and replace him with Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Many Californians are moderates and wanted nothing to do with these warring political caucuses. Parties in California had come to represented fringe interests: for more than a decade, “decline to state” has been the fastest growing political affiliation among voters.
Faced with this dysfunction and steeped in California’s culture of innovation, citizens (supported by a growing group of civic and philanthropic leaders including California Forward and Common Cause) began to both demand and propose changes to the rules and incentives of California politics. This desire led to three major changes: redistricting, open primaries, and linking successful budgeting to legislators’ pay.
For the first, in 2008, voters passed a citizen’s initiative that shifted responsibility for drawing election district boundaries from back rooms in the capitol to a citizen’s commission. Instead of dividing “safe” seats for partisan incumbents, the commission drew districts representing communities of interest and other public interest values.
For the second, in the same year, voters passed another citizen’s initiative that allows voters to select from all candidates in a primary election and thus to advance to the general election the two most popular candidates, regardless of party affiliation.
And for the third, four years later in 2012, voters passed two propositions. The first one created some flexibility in what were the tightest term limits in the nation. The second revolved around budget setting. It reduced the supermajority vote threshold to pass a budget to a simple majority, while retaining the need for a two-third majority to change taxes, and it required legislators to go unpaid for as long as they fail to reach a budget.
In a few short years, these initiatives have changed the composition of the Legislature. When the Legislature convened in January 2013, all of the Assembly and half of the Senate had been elected in new districts. These new districts lacked predetermined party majorities, forcing candidates to wage campaigns that appealed to the votes in that district rather than own party’s leadership.
These initiatives also shifted the Legislature’s mindset by incenting collaboration. More than half of the Assembly members can stay in their seat for 12 years. Before, with the six-year term limit, Assembly members focused on finding their next position – which often required competing with a peer – early into their tenure in the Legislature.
These reforms are just a start. The citizen’s initiative, the essential tool for reform, needs sharpening: more public vetting to improve initiatives and greater voter education on what the propositions will do. Citizens and the media need to promote real dialogue and debate on the benefits and costs of the specific initiatives. Citizens need to demand that governments are transparent about their funding levels and choices and the results delivered. Fueled by these disclosures, governments and elected officials need to be held accountable for the decisions they make.
These reforms also need to and do come with a shift in the structure of governance. The challenge of California’s size remains: often it is too large, too diverse, and too complex to solve community and regional problems at the state level. So the other key shift during this time has been the increasing delegation of authority from state to local governments. For example, counties are leading the development of community correctional systems that will replace the expensive and ineffective state prison system. In 2012, the state gave 1,000 local school districts greater discretion in spending funding to meet state and community goals.
These reforms and shifts in governance in California prove the possibility of change across the United States. They are serious and promising adaptions of democracy that reduce hyper-partisanship and shift power back to voters. Moderate candidates can get elected. Hyper-partisan politicians are incentivized to compromise. Citizens have more confidence in their government and are prepared to invest it, rather than undermine it.
In California in 2003, passing these reforms looked as unlikely as passing them in Washington, DC looks now. But with strong citizen engagement, civic leadership and belief in the possibility of change, these reforms can shift partisan politics throughout the nation as well. Good governance matters, citizens deserve and should demand it.