In the recent Democratic debate held at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, one of the most electric exchanges was between Senator Elizabeth Warren, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Senator Amy Klobuchar about how candidates raise money from special interests. Whether the fundraising is happening in wine caves or behind closed doors, all candidates participate in a system of dialing for dollars as long as we don’t have national public financing. 

This exchange opened the door to campaign finance reform, and the first bill introduced into the House in March — the For the People Act of 2019 or House Resolution 1 (HR 1), which proposed sweeping changes to campaign finance, elections, redistricting and ethics. While the bill was passed the House, it languishes on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s desk, waiting for a hearing to be scheduled.

So the real question is, what plan do any of the candidates have to bridge the partisan canyon in Congress to pass important bills such as HR1?

Up until now, political pundits and operatives have focused on who can win against Trump. That cannot be the only measuring stick. After the election in 2020, we have to ask ourselves who has a plan to lead us out of this national dysfunction?

California has a lot of lessons to offer the nation on how to walk that path toward national healing.

To start, we shook up redistricting, the process of drawing voting maps that in most states makes mixed martial arts cage fights look tame. 

Until 2011, California’s state legislators drew their own district lines and congressional lines. Instead of voters choosing their politicians, politicians chose their voters.

In 2001, I was a young attorney organizing in Asian American and Pacific Islander communities to help people ask the legislature not to cut up their communities. For many people who testified, this was the first time they testified before any group of lawmakers so their were hopeful that their voices would be heard.

My optimism was shattered when I got a phone call from a Democratic lawmaker from San Francisco. She said, “Kathay, you’re not going to put another f—ing Asian in my district.” 

I learned the hard way that politicians who have the power to draw their own election maps and ensure uncontested power for the rest of the decade are arrogant with power — regardless of their party affiliation. This is the poison that infects our democracy throughout the country.

In 2008, I worked with an unusual coalition of left, right and center allies to pass a proposition that would create the nation’s first independent citizens redistricting commission. Californians took the power to draw voting maps from politicians and gave it to people like you and me.

Independent and community-led, today our redistricting process is conducted with the goal of keeping communities together in the new maps. No longer behind closed doors, drawing voting lines is conducted openly and transparently. 

Fourteen commissioners — Democrats, Republicans and independents — listen to testimony from people around the state. Although they come from different walks of life and wear different partisan hats, they talked with each other to work through hard decisions and come up with a common solution.

This is a model for the rest of the country. Right now Oregon, Nevada and Virginia could be the next states to adopt redistricting reforms. They’re all states where Democrats hold power.

Will the Democratic leadership in these states embrace citizen commissions for their states? Will the presidential candidates champion a fair and transparent process not just for red states,  but for Democrat-controlled states as well?

That would be the real leadership our country needs.

Reforming our democracy and unrigging the redistricting process requires us to work across party lines and champion solutions that lift all our voices. Labor and chambers of commerce. AARP and Generation Z. Farmers and city dwellers. Newcomers and natives. I want to know how these candidates can inspire us to work together as a nation. 

Beyond independent redistricting, California has blazed the trail to reform our elections so we empower the voices of all residents. California Common Cause is proud to be on the forefront of helping our state adopt new laws that make voter registration more accessible — online, integrated at DMVs, and available all the way through election day. 

Here in Los Angeles county, we will be rolling out a new way of voting that gives people the option to cast their ballots at Vote Centers anywhere in the county or by mail. 

In California, redistricting reforms, voting reforms and even campaign finance reforms have helped us start to bridge the divide at a time when there are so many at the national level who seek to sow divisions among Americans. Californians should scrutinize each presidential candidate to determine who presents the best path forward to create a democracy that works for all of us.

Kathay Feng is executive director of California Common Cause and Common Cause’s national redistricting director, kfeng@commoncause.org.

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