For post-shutdown reform ideas, many look to California

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.
(Brendan Smialowski, AFP/Getty Images)

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.

In Utah, former GOP Gov. Mike Leavitt, a close advisor to Mitt Romney, is helping lead a campaign to open the nominating process to more voters. The proposal would establish primaries in place of caucuses, which are typically dominated by party activists. Voter dissatisfaction with the prominent role played in the shutdown by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), a tea party crusader, could give the measure a boost.

Republican moderates also have been active in Virginia, where tea party influence over the party’s nominating convention this year led to a uniformly conservative ticket for statewide offices, all of which seems headed for defeat in next month’s election. One day into the shutdown, Rep. Scott Rigell (R-Va.), a moderate, called for changes in the way districts are drawn.

But making changes to an election system is difficult and often produces unintended side effects.

Just ask the GOP in California. The state party, and some of its biggest donors, initially rallied behind the idea of a citizen redistricting commission.

After voters approved the measure, party officials realized that a nonpartisan redistricting would be likely to boost Democrats by endangering entrenched Republican incumbents. Many GOP backers of the plan scrambled to try to unravel the whole thing, but their efforts came too late.

In other states, plans to change the system have hit walls of opposition.

In Ohio, advocacy groups raised millions of dollars to get a measure on the ballot and mount a campaign for an independent redistricting commission. Major newspaper editorial boards declared the measure deeply flawed. It was defeated badly.

In Arizona, voters created an independent commission to draw political boundaries. The governor and lawmakers were so infuriated by the way it operated that they impeached the commission chairwoman. She was reinstated by the courts.

In most states, ballot initiatives do not exist. Backers of new voting rules must work through legislatures, where lawmakers are unmotivated to make changes that could hurt their reelection chances. Congress has balked in the past for the same reason.

But many think the shutdown has altered the playing field, despite the difficulties.

“There is a lot of public interest in these changes,” former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman, a Democrat who is now a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said after a town hall on election reform Tuesday at Ohio State University.

“People feel that government is not working well — it is not producing anything of value,” he said. “They want something to be done.”