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The Answer to Gridlock

Who knew that there is actually something that you can do to help fix political gridlock!

Three years ago, California was teased as a “failed state”. The state was nearly bankrupt, infrastructure was crumbling, and the government was completely gridlocked. But as I reported a month ago, nobody is teasing California any more. Their economy is going gangbusters, there is no more gridlock, and they solved their budget issues.

How did this amazing turnaround happen? Yes, the Republican party collapsed, which gave progressive Democrats a supermajority in the legislature, and thus the power to fix problems. And much of the credit has to go to Jerry Brown, who is now the longest serving governor in California history, and one of the most effective.

But ironically, the Democrats owe their victories to a Republican, former Governator Arnold Schwarzenegger. At the end of his term he put all of his energy into passing two seemingly simple reforms. In 2008, he supported a state proposition that eliminated gerrymandering by giving the power to draw electoral boundaries to a citizens’ commission. And in 2010 he wrote a state proposition which created open primaries, so that citizens can vote in any primary, regardless of party affiliation.

These two propositions were opposed by the Democrats, including Senator Barbara Boxer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and were largely supported by Republicans, including gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman and New York city mayor Michael Bloomberg.

The changes make it far more difficult for candidates from either ideological extreme to get elected by pandering to their radical base. As a result, politics become more moderate. And politicians were able to compromise and work with the other party in order to get things done, without fear of reprisal from the more radical fringes in their party.

How much more gets done? During the 17 days of the federal shutdown, Brown signed 363 bills into law. As a comparison, only 90 bills have made it through Congress for Obama to sign in all of 2013. California has even tackled immigration reform, something that both parties agree we need at the federal level, but which has been blocked repeatedly by a fringe minority.

This is something we can do. By passing two common-sense laws at the state level, we can actually eliminate our paralyzing gridlock at the federal level:

  • Take away the politicians’ ability to draw their own electoral districts, which gives a huge advantage to incumbents.
  • Make all primary elections open to any voter, regardless of party affiliation.

California has shown that these two simple changes can deliver amazing benefits. Let your representatives (especially at the state level) know that you support these changes.



  1. PATRIOTSGT wrote:

    That’s brilliant! Fix the federal system from the state level. I think that’s exactly how the founding fathers envisioned it.

    Sunday, October 27, 2013 at 7:19 am | Permalink
  2. capierso wrote:

    This was pretty amazing to me as well. I came back to CA to retire and saw a ruined state. I grew up in one of the best environments for regular, not-rich citizens in the world. When the vote came and Demos “recommended” that the propositions be defeated….many people, saw this as a power play with no regard for the people. Arnold was mostly a jerk, and he may have had “impure” reasons for the proposals, but I was happy to agree with him on these!

    Sunday, October 27, 2013 at 10:05 am | Permalink
  3. Iron Knee wrote:

    Capierso, the same thing happened in Oregon. We had a ballot measure to change to open primaries and the Democrats were against it. But that was before we had evidence of the benefits.

    I’m actually very excited about these changes getting adopted. I’m trying to figure out what is the best way to get these propositions made in a majority of states. After all, who could (publicly) disagree with eliminating gerrymandering? (Well, other than politicians who have done the gerrymandering and only get reelected because of it.)

    I expect that Republicans might be against these proposals (even though they were in favor of them in California), because the result was the Republican party collapsed there. But the reason they collapsed was that they were unable to become more moderate. If these two changes could be adopted in a majority of states, then I believe it will be easier for the Republican party to release themselves from being controlled by their radical fringe elements, and will (hopefully) become a vibrant (and winning) political party again.

    Does anyone know of organizations that are pushing to get these changes made in other states? I would definitely support them.

    Sunday, October 27, 2013 at 10:32 am | Permalink
  4. Don wrote:

    Of the two, the move away from gerrymandering has had the greatest effect, in my opinion. Judging from the last election – the first one with more open primaries, it’s really too early to say whether this has moderated the candidates in the general election. It certainly didn’t in the state districts I’m in – tea party rightist against tea party rightist. Hopefully this will moderate in the future. Course, I do live in one of the counties with a Board of Supervisors that has voted to pursue seceding from California and forming the State of Jefferson. “>D

    Sunday, October 27, 2013 at 12:42 pm | Permalink
  5. Mike wrote:

    I think you missed a third important aspect of California’s electoral reforms.

    In California, now, the two candidates getting the most votes in the primary face off against each other in the general election, regardless of party affiliation. So if two Democrats get more votes than all of the Republican candidates, the two Democrats face off against each other in the general election. It makes being on the radical fringe either way, much more risky for a primary candidate.

    Sunday, October 27, 2013 at 2:31 pm | Permalink
  6. capierso wrote:

    Mike is right. It is too early to tell how that will play out, but looking at it dispassionately, it does seem to be more democratic. (I must live near Don because the likelihood of two GOPs running against each in my area is the most likely.) We will have to see.

    Sunday, October 27, 2013 at 3:03 pm | Permalink
  7. Jonah wrote:

    Pretty damning for Pelosi and boxer that they objected. Seems like common sense stuff that should have been encouraged.

    Sunday, October 27, 2013 at 4:49 pm | Permalink
  8. westomoon wrote:

    IK, thanks for your coverage of the California turnaround — it’s news that’s hard to find anywhere else.

    A few years back, when WA was trying to decide how it wanted to do primaries, BOTH parties opposed the open primary. You can see why — a party loses an awful lot of control that way. I must admit, I did too — having seen the wingnuts pervert many electoral processes that assume good will and a basic level of honesty. The voters overruled them, and so far, so good.

    We don’t seem to have much trouble with gerrymandering here — I’m assuming that’s because the Ds have controlled the legislature, and we don’t elect extremist Ds. (Are there any extremist Ds these days?) But States like WI and MI have shown that all it takes is one well-timed coup and it’s Katy-bar-the-door, no matter how rational one’s State has always been.

    The aspect of open primaries that Mike pointed out has already worked well — one of my County Commissioners was dumped by his party (R) at the last minute for having been too bipartisan in office. With encouragement from the voters (including me), he ran anyway and won.

    Monday, October 28, 2013 at 8:47 am | Permalink
  9. Iron Knee wrote:

    I really appreciate the feedback from readers about states that have adopted open primaries.

    And as Mike pointed out, California, Washington (and Louisiana) are not just open primary states, they have nonpartisan blanket primaries, where the top two candidates in the primary proceed to a runoff-like election, regardless of party affiliation.

    It seems that both of these measures are required: one to eliminate gerrymandering, and the other to combat the problem where moderates are eliminated in the primary for their lack of ideological purity.

    And like people have pointed out, the biggest losers would be the political parties themselves, which means there will be strong opposition. But that just means we have to work to get them adopted.

    I like these measures because, unlike campaign finance reform and other measures to restore sanity to our elections, they are simple, clear, and don’t violate anyone’s free speech. And the fact that they are already working in several states is a plus.

    Monday, October 28, 2013 at 10:28 am | Permalink