California provides lessons on ending political gridlock

Bonnie Reiss
Bonnie Reiss

As Californians and voters across the United States watch with various degrees of interest and fascination the Republican and Democratic presidential campaigns, one thing is clear: Political polarization is the order of the day.

Traditionally it is said that to win the Republican nomination you must appeal to the more conservative elements of the party, and to win the Democratic nomination you must appeal to the more liberal elements of the party. The popularity of Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders seems to validate that belief as well as some extreme policy positions being taken by more centrist candidates.

Yet in direct opposition to the national trend of increased partisanship and political division California is going in a different, less partisan direction. Many candidates running for the Legislature have become more moderate and more interested in appealing to voters across party lines in recent years. The USC Schwarzenegger Institute, which is committed to supporting policies that make our elected officials more responsive and less divided, commissioned research to look more deeply into this phenomenon.

In 2008 and 2010, a bipartisan coalition led by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger brought two political reform initiatives to the ballot that the voters of California passed by large margins.

One reform was aimed at ending the practice of partisan gerrymandering where elected officials draw their own district lines. Instead, voters approved the creation of an independent panel to draw district lines.

The second reform was to end the closed primary system where only partisan voters could participate in primary elections, and to create a “top-two” primary system. The top-two primary system allows all voters to participate in one primary and the two candidates getting the most votes move on to the general election.

Advocates of the top-two reform said it would cause candidates to appeal to all voters – Democrat, Republican and independent – in the primary and the general election, thus leading to a less extreme Legislature.

With other states currently considering similar reforms to those passed in California, we decided to research the impact these reforms have in fact had on the Legislature and the electoral process.

In 2014, we released the first research findings and have just completed a second research report, which shows that the reforms are working as intended; voters are seeing changes in California following the implementation of these political reforms.

The research shows a significant reduction in legislator ideological extremity, with a 34 percent reduction in the Assembly, and a 31 percent reduction in the Senate. This has led observers who once considered California “ungovernable” to look at it as an example of what is possible when partisan polarization is reduced.

We also conducted research outside of California that compared the outreach and messaging of candidates in states with closed primaries to those with open primaries and top-two primary systems.

Here, too, the findings were significant. Candidates were more responsive to independent voters in both open and top-two primaries, and candidate messages to voters of the other party were more bipartisan in open primary states and even more so in top-two primary states. And in top-two states, candidates were as likely to be responsive to other-party voters as same-party voters.

These findings are important as many citizens seek ways to make their governments work better. While extremists on both sides have voters supporting their point of view, effective democratic policy-making often requires compromise with candidates and legislators able to work across party and ideological lines.

For those looking at political reforms that can aid in making those in government less ideological and more open to voters of all partisan stripes, the research suggests that California may offer a way forward.

Bonnie Reiss is the director of the USC Schwarzenegger Institute. Christian Grose is a USC Schwarzenegger Institute faculty fellow.