So-called democracy reforms are seen as a way to re-engage voters, ensure that the voice of the people is heard, and bring people into the fold who may have traditionally been disenfranchised from the process.
The California Forward Radio Show recently focused in on four democracy reforms that have been passed with the goal of improving the democratic process: redistricting, top-two open primary, online voter registration, and adjusting term limits.
Gloria Anderson, president of the San Bernardino chapter of the League of Women Voters said redistricting reform gives the people a say.
“It takes redistricting out of the hands of lawmakers and puts it in the hands of the people,” she said. “They choose their representatives, instead of representatives choosing them.”
“Originally, it was decided that we shouldn’t burden the commission with congressional districts,” said Anderson. “Prop 20 also shortened the time the commission had to do all of the redistricting.” But, “the fact that they were able to do it is proof that you can do it.”
Anderson is confident that redistricting will reduce partisanship and give people an opportunity to elect people that fairly represent them, but “time will tell.”
Critics claim the maps are unfair. But, legal challenges were not successful. Some critics are now trying to take their challenge to the ballot box.
Online Voter Registration
Another democracy reform, Online Voter Registration, was recently signed into law by Governor Brown.
Senator Leland Yee authored AB 397. Lee’s chief of staff Adam Kegwin said nearly 40% of those eligible to vote in 2010 – nine million people – did not register. “This is going to increase the number of individuals participating in our democracy.”
Kegwin said the makeup of voters is changing, and the state must keep up.
“The state has had only paper registration, and most people are online now, especially young people,” he said. “Other states have done this and have seen big increases in voter registration and voter turnout.”
As to concerns about fraud, Kegwin said, “Many other states have done this, and they have not seen any instances of voter registration fraud. They’ve only seen that it has increased participation and saved money.”
Kegwin said this is part of a concerted effort by Lee to increase transparency in government.
“We need to do a better job as government officials to be more transparent, to have our information accessible, and get business done online. But, unfortunately we have lagged behind. This bill is one way we’re going to catch up.”
Online voter registration is expected to be implemented by November 2012.
Top-Two Open Primary
Two years ago, voters narrowly approved a measure establishing a single primary, rather than separating primaries by party. Then, the top two vote-getters, even from the same party, face off in a general election.
Under the old system, said Bob Stern, former president of the Center of Governmental Studies, “the candidate who was most conservative would generally win, and the candidate who was the most liberal would generally win. So you have very conservative and very liberal people all going to Sacramento and not really willing to compromise.”
Stern believes top-two could lead to more moderate people in Sacramento.
“If you’re running a democrat, you’re going to have to appeal to some republicans, because they’re voting in this race,” he said. “In the general election where two democrats are running, the democrat who is more moderate, less liberal, may have a chance to pick up a lot of republican votes.”
There are also downsides, said Stern. It’s going to create more of an opportunity for special interests to influence candidates, because candidates will need to raise more money to run in both the primary and general election.
“Third parties are against it, because they likely won’t have any candidates on the general election ballot,” said Stern. “Democrats and Republicans are opposed to it, because they want to decide who their nominee is… and have much more power and control over their nominees.”
California has seen a huge increase in decline to state voters, and this reform may only accelerate that. “With this new system, it doesn’t matter how you register to vote. This is going to encourage a lot more voters to register “decline to state. It reduces the power and clout of all the parties.”
The first real test of this reform will be in June 2012.
One reform that has been around for more than 20 years may be reformed again in 2012.
In 1990, Californians voted in the strictest term limits in the nation. Candidates could spend a total of 14 years in the legislature, six in the Assembly and eight in the Senate.
Stern said there have been positives and negatives.
“Term limits have been the only way to get rid of incumbents,” he said. And, “it has gotten rid of legislators who shouldn’t be there.” Prior to its passage “during the 2000 decade, only one incumbent legislator lost an election, and it was in the primary. That’s out of 500 elections.”
The problem: experience is also being lost.
“It doesn’t take rocket science to be a legislator. You can figure it out in about a year,” said Stern. But, “it takes more savvy to be a legislative leader. If you only have six years in the Assembly, it’s pretty tough to get that experience to be a leader.”
A reform measure expected to be on the ballot in 2012 would address this issue by having people serve just 12 years in the legislature, but allowing them to stay in one house the entire time.
“It would bring in people,” allow them to “get some experience, but they’re not there forever.”
California Forward supports reforms that bring more voters into the process, help moderate the system, increase transparency, accountability, and results, and give voters a voice in the process.