Jason Barrett
Senior Associate, Public Policy Analyst 
Business and California and Public Policy
Jason Barrett is a senior associate and public policy analyst at the Milken Institute. He monitors political activity in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., and analyzes its effects on economic, financial and regulatory policies. Barrett seeks to provide decision-makers and Institute stakeholders with key information regarding relevant legislation and policies at the...
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As midterms near, is California a model for election reform?
By: Jason Barrett
April 11, 2014
Four months into 2014, politicos are gearing up for election season. The midterms are 207 days away, and as officials here in California get their stumping shoes on, reformers are looking for ways to end the partisan gridlock that permeates the nationaEUR(TM)s political climate. The fix lies in the oft-ignored process of map-making, and it may be simpler than you think.

Congressional districts these days look less like neighborhood maps and more like Rorschach tests (see North Carolina 12). Why? Gerrymandering. This is the process by which state officials redraw districts to their own partyaEUR(TM)s benefit. By divvying up the citizenry based on political affiliation, party officials ensure the safety of their incumbents and/or maximize the number of districts likely to vote for their candidates. The result is a hyperpolarized Congress that fails to represent the broad middle of the American electorate and passed the fewest bills in the nationaEUR(TM)s history last year.

Reformers have attempted to ensure the impartiality of the map-makers in part by removing voters' party affiliations from the process. However, with enforcement of the rules in the hands of the parties that benefit from ignoring them, little real change has occurred.

Collaring the gerrymandering beast might be politically unfeasible, but there are strategies that can be employed to neuter it. With the passage of California's Proposition 14 in 2010, the state implemented several of them. The new system allowed for a "nonpartisan blanket primary," in which voters of any party can vote for candidates of any party. The two top vote-getting candidates, regardless of affiliation, advance to the general election. In many cases, candidates from the same party vie against each other in the general. This often leads to a more moderate contest, with neither candidate wanting to alienate the base of the opposing party. Once in office, the former candidate is far less likely to take an ideological stance if he or she is forced to cater to voters of the opposing party to stay there.

Only one major election has occurred in the state since the new system was implemented, so for the purpose of measuring results, the sample size is small. In the 2012 general election, 28 races featured candidates from the same party. While opponents argue that the new system further marginalized Republicans and granted Democrats a (temporary) supermajority in both chambers of the state Legislature, supporters of the reform say that the winners are far more likely to hold moderate views. Recent trends in the state, where party affiliation numbers continue to fall, seem to add heft to the reformers' position.

Dan Schnur, a former Republican strategist and now an independent candidate for California secretary of state, has been a strong proponent of the top-two system. "It changes the way people legislate," Schnur told the Los Angeles Times last month. "They don't have to spend their whole life looking over their shoulder wondering whether the [party] base is mad at them."

The system is not without flaws, though. In rare cases, a district that leans heavily toward one party might actually find itself choosing between two members of the minority party in the general election. This could occur if there is so much vote splitting among majority party candidates in the primary that two minority candidates end up on top. A hyperpartisan electoral system will continue to breed hyperpartisan candidates, and California should be commended for its efforts to change that. This yearaEUR(TM)s midterms will give the new system a stage to prove itself as a model for the rest of the country.