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WALTERS: Jury is still out on impact of reforms

Every California election is customarily followed by journalistic and academic seminars in which campaign strategies are dissected, pre-election polls are regurgitated, and pundits crow about successes and confess failures in predicting outcomes.

The usual just-for-junkies autopsies are being staged in the wake of the Nov. 6 election. And one of the aspects being extensively explored is whether the two electoral reforms in place for the first time this year <WC>—<WC1> independent redistricting of legislative and congressional districts and a top-two primary system <WC>—<WC1> had discernible impact and if so, whether it's positive or negative.

The answer, at least from this quarter, is that they did change the atmosphere of this year's elections for 153 legislative and congressional seats, but their impact on public policy remains an open question.

The two changes, adopted by voters over the opposition of leaders of both parties, were billed as not only ways to open up what had been a closed system of electing legislators, but as ways to lessen polarization, especially in the Legislature, and thus create a more responsive and productive institution.<WC> <WC1>They did open the system. While one can criticize<WC> <WC1>certain aspects of the independent commission's redistricting plan <WC>—<WC1> such as putting too much emphasis on ethnicity <WC>—<WC1> there's no doubt that it largely did its job openly and without regard to the effect on political careers.

Republicans, many of whom preferred the independent commission to redistricting by a Democrat-dominated Legislature, are unhappy that the election generated two-thirds Democratic supermajorities in both houses.<WC> <WC1>But that outcome reflects the arithmetic fact that Republicans are now fewer than 30 percent of registered voters and were fewer than 30 percent of the Nov. 6 voters, so really didn't earn more than 30 percent of the legislative seats.

Many of the legislative and congressional races were decided by a very few votes, which attests to the more competitive nature of the commission's plan, as well as the effect of the top-two primary.

There were 28 races in which candidates from the same party were vying, which meant they had to seek support from voters of the other party.<WC> <WC1>More competitive districts should mean less lockstep voting in the Legislature as more members, including more Democrats, have to worry about alienating their voters.

Whether it does and whether it means that the notoriously dysfunctional Legislature will finally address the state's long-simmering, unresolved issues<NO1>, and do so in ways that are satisfactory to more than a few narrow interests<NO> remain to be seen.<WC>

<WC1>We simply won't know whether the electoral reforms were worth it until we see what comes out of the legislative pipe.

<i>Dan Walters is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee.</i>


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