James Rufus Koren, Staff Writer
Posted: 12/30/2010 07:05:15 PM PST

While continued budget woes will be front and center over at least much of the coming year, behind the scenes California will be conducting a few political experiments – ones that experts say has the potential to dramatically change how California’s government works.

In the coming few months, a group of 14 Californians – five Democrats, five Republicans, and four voters not affiliated with either major party – will redraw the boundaries of the state’s congressional, Assembly and state Senate districts.

Political observers say new districts, along with a new type of primary election that will be used starting in 2011, could make California lawmakers more moderate, more willing to work together and more responsive to their constituents.

“You need competition for a working democracy,” said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College. “You need competitive elections for the electorate to have a voice. … We have a much less than perfect democracy in California.”

The redistricting commission was created by a 2008 ballot measure and strengthened by the passage of one and failure of another ballot measure in November.

When district lines were redrawn in 2001, many lawmakers and experts agree that the boundaries were shaped in ways that, above all, helped incumbent lawmakers keep their seats and ensure most elections wouldn’t be competitive.

It worked.

“Over the entire decade, no state Senate seat changed party control,” said Douglas Johnson, a research fellow with Claremont McKenna College’s Rose Institute of State and Local Government. “That’s pretty good evidence.”

While there’s no guarantee that new districts will be more competitive, it’s a good bet that districts will be more compact, uniting nearby communities rather than splitting them up. Some lawmakers say those more compact districts, coupled with a new type of primary election, could make lawmakers more accountable.

“The new districts, if they are drawn with any respect for the people … then they can undo the damage politicians of both parties did to this state over a decade ago,” said Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, elected this year to represent the sprawling 59th Assembly District, which stretches from San Bernardino County’s High Desert almost to the San Fernando Valley.

The new primary election system will take hold in 2011, though it won’t be used widely until 2012. The system was created by a ballot measure passed in June.

The new system will allow all voters, regardless of party affiliation, to vote for any candidate in a primary election, with the top two vote-getters moving on to the general election.

Under the old primary system, voters registered with a political party could vote only for candidates of their own party. The top vote getters from each party would then go on to the general election.

Assemblyman Curt Hagman, R-Chino Hills, said the top-two or open primary system will be good for the Legislature and the state.

“We do need to have a more open election,” Hagman said. “When we have a 7 percent approval rating and only one incumbent loses their seat, we have a problem.”

Political parties big and small don’t like the open primary system. Leaders of small parties – Green, Libertarian, American Independent – say the system will effectively guarantee their candidates will never make it to a general election ballot.

While open primaries and new districts will help determine who makes it to the state Legislature, another big change will affect how the Legislature works.

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