A hopeful sign of political moderation has broken out in, of all places, California. While Democrats firmly control state government, three election reforms put in place through citizen initiative have produced more moderation and consensus-building on hot-button issues such as immigration and government regulation. This is the predictable result of more competitive elections with more mainstream candidates looking to appeal to a broader swath of voters. California's experience has lessons for Florida, where there are still too many noncompetitive legislative districts and term limits are too tight.
Until recently, California was known for its political dysfunction, out-of-control deficits and even the recall of a governor. Now observers are noting the reduced temperature and cooperation on a range of issues. Gov. Jerry Brown is a Democrat and there are large Democratic majorities in the Assembly and Senate. But other factors are at work, too. The Legislature includes incoming lawmakers representing districts drawn by a nonpartisan commission rather than the Legislature, and the new districts are more competitive and drawn so a single party is less likely to dominate each district.
It is also the first California legislature chosen through an open primary system, where the top two vote-getters in a nonpartisan primary run against each other regardless of party affiliation. This forces primary candidates, not just those in the general election, to appeal to voters who may be independent or of another party. And last year, voters loosened term limits in the Assembly, allowing lawmakers to serve up to 12 years in that Assembly or the state Senate. More experienced legislators can look beyond the next election and embrace policy for the long haul rather than quick fixes.
There are tangible results. A Republican state senator co-sponsored a bill to permit undocumented aliens to obtain drivers' licenses. Democrats, despite their strength, didn't end up passing regulatory bills opposed by the state Chamber of Commerce. Politicians from both parties are getting the message that bipartisanship will help rather than hinder re-election chances. They don't have to worry quite as much about a primary challenger from their party's most extreme side who is opposed to compromise.
Florida has none of California's reforms. The state's voter-passed constitutional amendments now require districts to be drawn more fairly, but the Legislature still determines the lines. The state has a closed primary system in which only members of a particular political party can vote. The only exception is when primary elections determine the outcome of a seat, but political parties routinely recruit outside straw candidates to keep their primary elections closed. And Florida legislators face term limits of eight years, resulting in lawmakers with little or no experience being selected for leadership posts, and short-term fixes to long-term problems.
As the nation's most populous state, California is often a laboratory for changes later adopted throughout the country. Its election reforms seem to be introducing moderation into governing, something Florida and the rest of the nation sorely needs. Florida's political primaries should be open to all voters, and voters should amend the Constitution to repeal term limits for legislators or at least extend them.