Some California Democratic Party leaders have recently posited that too much competition in the upcoming primaries may be a bad thing. This is short sighted.
Democrats should not simply embrace California’s open system, we should champion it around the country. If we want to build lasting majorities in Congress and make meaningful progress on the vital issues facing our country, we must inspire trust and confidence in the American people and that means embracing electoral reform and increased competition.
Simply put - Democrats must lead on democracy.
California is known worldwide as a cutting edge economic innovator. Our economy is bigger than ever, rivaling the U.K. as the fifth largest in the world. We experienced more growth last year than the next two fastest growing states-New York and Florida-combined.
California is not only innovating the global economy, we’ve shown that increasing democracy is a formula for success.
California government used to look like Washington, D.C.: 24/7 gridlock and divisive partisanship. Our government was one of the most partisan and uncompetitive in the nation. Lawmakers brave enough to work across party lines to find solutions were stripped of committee positions by party leadership. Only a handful of incumbents were defeated during the entire decade of 2000-2010.
In 2010, Californians decided to rid ourselves of a government unable to address the challenges of the 21st century. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and a diverse coalition of business, good government, progressive, grassroots and independent leaders and organizations proposed two reforms: an independent redistricting commission and top two open primaries. The voters approved both reforms, and our state has benefited enormously.
It’s easy to forget how different our elections are from much of the rest of the country.
California legislative district lines aren’t drawn for partisan advantage and we have a single public open primary that is open to all voters and all candidates. The highest vote-getters go on to compete in the November election, regardless of party. Other states shut out independent voters and force Democrats to only vote for Democrats and Republicans for Republicans, which reinforces partisan silos and restricts voter choice. Gerrymandered districts and partisan primaries produce politicians who need only listen to 5 percent of the most partisan voters in their party in order to stay in office.
California has gone from having the least competitive elections in the country to some of the most competitive according to the Lucy Burns Institute. With fair districts, 4 million independent voters enfranchised, and Democratic and Republican voters offered more choices, politicians must now reach out to all the voters-not just the partisan few-to be elected. Once in office, legislators can put the priorities of their constituents above the narrow priorities of the political party establishments and special interests. Lawmakers can form 21st century coalitions and work across party lines with less fear of retribution.
African-American representation in our legislature has almost doubled since 2010. The number of Latino candidates for state and federal offices has surged, and the California Hispanic Congressional delegation has increased by 50 percent since we adopted open primaries and independent redistricting.
Democracy innovation is why California was able to pass a significant package of gun safety bills, while legislators in Florida (elected in closed partisan primaries) are in the headlines for ignoring student activists after the Parkland shooting. The Tallahassee Democrat editorial board recently opined that Florida has a “primary problem” that prevents progress on tough policy issues like gun safety. California democracy innovation is why progressives, moderates, conservatives and independents, along with business, agriculture, labor and environmentalists can come together and pass cap-and-trade emissions legislation while Washington can’t acknowledge that climate change is real.
Eight years ago, Californians stood up and demanded change. It has worked. Voters are more confident about the new system. Independents are not penalized for declining to join a party. Elected officials can work across the aisle and innovate on tough issues. The world envies California’s economic and technology innovation. It’s time to tell the story of our political innovation, and it’s time for Democrats to lead on democracy. We have real-world tested solutions to partisanship and gridlock, and much to add to the national conversation about fixing broken politics.
Ro Khanna was elected to represent California’s 17th District in 2016. Steve Westly is a venture capitalist and founder of the Westly Group. He previously served as the Controller, and Chief Fiscal Officer of the State of California from 2003 to 2007.