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Wednesday, Apr 23, 2014
Editorials

Empowering people, not political parties

Published:

Is there any way our nation’s political system can shed its cloak of bitter, crippling bipartisanship? There may be, if only the powers-that-be are willing to study how California addressed the problem and consider similar strategies.

California simply got rid of the gerrymandering — the clumsy and often outrageous legislative shaping of political districts designed to guarantee one party or another success at the polls — and handed the responsibility for creating district boundaries to a nonpartisan commission. The state also loosened its rules on term limits.

These are sensible steps that empower people instead of political parties.

This year’s is the first legislature in Sacramento to be chosen under the new nonpartisan election system where the top-two finishers in a primary run against each other — without party affiliations — in a arrangement designed to encourage candidates to appeal to a less partisan segment of the electorate.

Also, California voters last year approved an initiative that softened the impact of the stringent term limits that had created a legislature filled with inexperienced politicians who were inclined to be more interested in their next election campaign than in anything else. The state’s lawmakers now can serve up to 12 years in either of the legislature’s two houses.

Other states, including Florida, have learned that term limits have actually handed political power to longtime lobbyists, who know the capitol’s ropes, and to the entrenched bureaucracy. Rigid term limits, in reality, look to have diminished voters’ influence.

Recently, Californians saw previously unlikely legislative cooperation on various bills and provided a sharp contrast between the federal shutdown in Washington and their virtually acrimony-free legislature.

The legislators passed laws addressing such previously divisive subjects as school financing, immigration, and abortion.

Granted, Democrats now control both houses of the legislature and the governorship, whereas as recently as three years ago it was precisely the opposite, with Republicans in charge of everything. But here’s the key: The shifts in power did not inspire the minority party to stymie the majority the way that so often happens in Washington. Members of both parties were willing to compromise.

“You see Republicans voting for immigration reform, you see Democrats voting for streamlining environmental regulations,” Dan Schnur, the director of a political institute at the University of Southern California told The New York Times. “You never would have seen that before.”

Sen. Anthony Cannella, a Republican, recently co-sponsored a bill that allows unauthorized immigrants to obtain drivers’ licenses. Cannella’s district was 35 percent Republican when he was elected three years ago, but that number now is only 14 percent after district lines were drawn by the nonpartisan commission.

And Cannella likes his new situation because, he said, the redistricting and nonpartisan election changes have freed legislators from needing to indulge their party bases and in fact have given “more courage to my Republican colleagues … now it’s not just their base they have to appeal to.”

If similar reforms were adopted nationwide for Congressional redistricting, we’d no longer elect politicians who need to polish their partisan credentials. Florida voters passed redistricting reform in 2010 that aims to minimize gerrymandering, but lawmakers still draw the lines.

In progressive California, the change looks to be benefiting liberals — at least for now. But it needn’t be that way. If representative districts are drawn, leftist Democrats would have to worry about their conservative constituents, and not instinctively push gun control and other liberal causes.

In the long run, fair districts should result in a government more representative of the public, and we believe that would be a more conservative government. Economists estimate the recent government shutdown, caused by severe partisanship, cost the taxpayers billions of dollars.

America can do better. America must do better.

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