OP-ED | Sink Extremism with Smart Election Reform
For years, extremists controlled the debate in the capitol. Elected representatives, gerrymandered into districts dominated by their party, were pressed to adopt ever more extreme positions in fear of a primary. Republicans were especially vulnerable, and started to use arcane legislative rules to block, harass, and confound the majority Democrats, ultimately leading to a serious crisis in governance as huge debts yawned and money ran out. Sound familiar? But this isn’t a description of Congress — it’s California, only a few years ago.
But California now is much different. A state that was once called “ungovernable” has now begun addressing many of the pressing issues other states and the federal government face, from pension reform to immigration reform. There’s no more talk of intractable gridlock in Sacramento, and the idea of California as the poster child for the failed liberal state has largely faded away.
California did it by implementing several successful, common-sense election reforms. First, they got rid of the divisive, low-turnout, closed-party primary that was responsible for so much of the gridlock in the state legislature. In its place, they adopted the kind of innovation that many strong and well-functioning democracies in other parts of the world have embraced; the top-two open primary. Basically they turned what had been a partisan, party-only bonanza for extremists into a two-round election in which everyone participates, and the top two vote-getters in the first round move on to the second.
What this does in practice is two very, very good things. First, it forces candidates to appeal to their entire districts instead of pandering to the right or left in order to win a primary. Because partisans often tend to dominate primaries (see Lieberman vs. Lamont, 2006), the candidates often are much more partisan than the party as a whole. This is how the current Republican House majority came to power.
The second very good thing the new top two system does is that it eliminates the threat of a right-wing or left-wing primary, and so the idea of lawmakers running scared into positions they would never otherwise adopt in fear of a howling mob of partisans faded into the background. If this system were adopted elsewhere, the sorts of conditions that created the current shutdown/debt ceiling crisis would be in large part cease to exist.
The other vital reform that California’s voters approved was a citizens’ redistricting panel made up of five Republicans and five Democrats, none of whom were politicians. This panel created a redistricting map that, after some skepticism on the part of the state’s political watchers, was largely hailed as both fair and effective.
This doesn’t mean that California’s government is perfect — far from it. But Sacramento functions, and that is such a striking change from the preceding gridlock, dysfunction, and constant gloom-and-doom that it’s impossible to ignore.
These reforms, or others like them, should be implemented nationwide. Since it’s up to the states to decide how to reapportion their districts, and up to the states to decide how their elections will be held, this is something that must happen state-by-state.
Let’s start at home. These reforms would benefit Connecticut in all kinds of ways. The way that we choose candidates for legislative and congressional races would change for the better. The state legislature’s partisan composition seems stuck in amber; does it really reflect Connecticut? Do our members of Congress really represent the towns in their districts? What would the first or third districts look like with this kind of system?
And in local elections, imagine what it would be like if the winner of the Democratic or Republican primary wasn’t the inevitable winner of races in many cities and towns? How would New Haven’s mayoral election have played out if the city had a top-two open primary instead of a closed partisan primary system?
Redistricting reform is even more vital. After the shameful, head-shaking antics of the politicians who made up the last redistricting panel, the need for a change to the redistricting process was clear. I think it’s needed now more than ever. The way that districts are drawn now is all about keeping elected officials in power, and not about the people they represent. A citizens’ commission like California’s would be a welcome change.
It’s time to improve our democracy and set an example for the rest of the nation. Let’s start the long process of changing our state constitution now, and give extremism and cronyism the boot.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.