What California Can Learn From British Election

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Great Britain is an ocean and a continent away from California. But Californians frustrated with their state government -- which is to say, virtually all Californians -- should pay attention to the current struggle to form a new British government. The key issue in that British debate is a reform that could make California's budget and government work better.

In case you missed it, Britain's Conservative Party won the most seats in Parliament in elections last week -- but not enough seats to form a majority. So both the Conservatives and their rivals, the Labour Party, have been seeking the support of a third party, who despite their name -- the Liberal Democrats -- occupy the center of British politics. As the price of providing enough votes in Parliament to give one party or other the majority, the Liberal Democrats are demanding major changes in how elections are decided.

The Lib Dems argue -- quite correctly -- that the British system of winner-take-all elections hurts them. The Liberal Democrats won 23 percent of all votes in Parliamentary elections, but won only 9 percent of the seats. So they are demanding that the election system be changed to award seats proportionally -- so that 23 percent of all votes would produce closer to 23 percent of all seats.

The Lib Dems, in a way, have much in common with California's unaffiliated independent voters, known here as Decline to States. We DTSers (yes, your blogger is one) make up more than 20 percent of the registered voters, but our two-party system largely shuts out the DTS. Currently there is only one Decline to State lawmaker in the 120-member California legislature (a Fresno-area lawmaker who was elected as a Democrat and later left the party).

Why does all of this matter? California's budget and economy are a mess, in part, because our highly partisan legislature has very few officials who represent the middle and would be more amenable to compromise. Good government types have tried to remedy this problem with various indirect reforms, including changing how legislative districts are drawn (as in the ballot initiative known as Prop 11 in 2008) and how primaries are decided (the focus of Prop 14, an initiative on next month's statewide ballot).

But such reforms have indirect effects, at best. The simplest way to create a non-partisan middle in California would be to adopt the idea of Britain's Liberal Democrats and demand that winner-take-all election be eliminated and replaced with proportional representation.

Imagine the Calfornia legislature in which 20 percent of lawmakers -- that'd be 24 lawmakers at the legislature's current size -- were DTSers. That would be a game changer.

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