Posted by Samantha Serrano on August 06, 2015 at 10:35 AM
Learn with the Intern: California is a Role Model
Prior to its use of Top Two nonpartisan primaries, the state of California was considered one of the most partisan political environments in the nation. Runaway deficits and gridlocked budgets were standard. Lawmakers brave enough to work across party lines found a system rigged against them. Both California’s citizens and elected officials tried for years to reform their election system to reduce its ineffective design.
Beginning in 1974, California voters enacted comprehensive campaign finance and disclosure regulations thanks to President Nixon and the Watergate scandal. However, these regulations did not lessen or get rid of the overly partisan nature of the political and legislative environment. Until the 90’s, California had legislators with high incumbency rates, a semi-closed primary system, and a complex system of gerrymandering to create “safe” districts.
Seeking to mitigate the partisan gridlock across the state, Californians enacted a blanket primary in 1996, allowing all voters to participate in any party primary race they chose, that is, until the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the blanket primary design in 2000. It ruled that parties, as private entities, had a right to exclude non-party members from participating in their nominating process.
After this setback, citizens’ confidence in California’s governing system drastically fell. In 2003, a nonpartisan political coalition remade California politics by creating a nonpartisan and fully independent redistricting commission and enacting a nonpartisan Top Two primary (which became Proposition 14). In 2010, despite being opposed by every major political party in California, Proposition 14 passed with 54% of the vote. The state has used the system to conduct all statewide and congressional elections since 2012.
The impact of Top Two’s competitive elections and voter inclusion on the behavior of the State Legislature was immediate. Public approval ratings for the state legislature have risen to their highest levels since 2001. In 2010, the approval rating was just a mere 14%, but this year that rate is now at 42%. That’s a big difference.
While it may be difficult to quantify the performance of California’s state legislature, Director of IndependentVoting.org, Jason Olsen, and Associate Professor at UNC at Greensboro, Dr. Omar Ali, have written a report, citing some accomplishments noted by political observers and politicians as evidence of a new environment in the legislature.
Some of these accomplishments include:
Several legislators publicly broke with their party on critical votes.
The California Legislature has met its Constitutional deadline for budget approval in each year under Top Two.
Republican State Senator Anthony Cannella put it bluntly when he stood with Democrats to co-sponsor legislation allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain driver's licenses.
Senator Cannella even remarked that the redistricting and nonpartisan election changes were freeing lawmakers from obedience to their party bases and allowing them to engage more broadly on specific issues.
“It’s given more courage to my Republican colleagues,” he said. “They were afraid of getting primaried. Now, it’s not just their base they have to appeal to.”
Additionally, other members of the legislature, both past and present, have commented upon the culture change in Sacramento. Olsen and Ali’s report states that Assemblywoman Autumn Burke of the California Legislative Black Caucus, (which has expanded its membership from eight to twelve under the Top Two primary system) recently said,
“as challenging as the open primary system has been for many of us, it’s kept us in touch with our constituents.”
With a legislature created using a nonpartisan system, issues arise and are resolved with California’s constituents in mind, instead of party ideologies. For Americans fed up with the partisan stand-still of their government, the Top Two Nonpartisan Primary offers real promise for the future.
Originally from New Jersey, Samantha Serrano is currently a rising sophomore at The George Washington University located in Washington, DC. Samantha has had a passion for government and politics throughout her educational journey, which sparked her interest to intern at Open Primaries Inc. in Manhattan.
In high school, Samantha was very actively involved in extracurricular activities as the Student Government President, Class Council Secretary, and Treasurer of the New Jersey Assoc. of Student Councils while maintaining her GPA to graduate in the top 2% of her class.
Now attending one of the most politically active schools in the country, Samantha plans to take the experience she gains from interning at Open Primaries Inc. and apply it to her future endeavors at school as well as her future career.