Posted by Kellie Ryan on August 04, 2015 at 3:53 PM
Has jungle primary tamed Legislature?
SACRAMENTO — California’s political system has long been the focus of tinkerers who want to make it more responsive to the voters. This fixation goes back at least to the Progressive Era, when Gov. Hiram Johnson helped usher in reforms that are still the subject of debate today — the initiative, recall and referendum.
The goal, of course, was to give the voting public — rather than special interests and party bosses — a greater say in how the state is governed.
One of the more significant recent California electoral reforms to attempt this is the “top two” primary, which was approved by voters (Proposition 14) in 2010 and first implemented in a 2011 special election. Previously, for most races the parties nominated their candidates in a primary election, and then the winners — Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, etc. — would face off against each other in the November general election.
In this new primary system, all candidates compete in an open or “jungle” primary regardless of their party affiliation. The top two vote-getters move on to the general election — even if both of them are from the same party. It applies to state legislative races, congressional seats and statewide constitutional races (governor, treasurer, etc.).
Advocates argued it would increase competition and decrease the power of the party bosses. Some pitched it as a means to moderate the views of officials. In the old system, they said, Democrats would run to the left and Republicans would run to the right to appeal to their base primary voters. Because so many districts are overwhelmingly Democrat or Republican in registration, that meant that candidates would never have to court the broader electorate.
According to a new report by a pro-top-two advocacy group called Open Primaries, the system has been a great success. “(P)olitical observers around the country have been impressed with the relative lack of acrimony in California’s legislature compared with both Congress and California’s own recent history,” it argued. The study says “top two” has greatly boosted political competition, ended legislative dysfunction and increased voter participation.
By contrast, “top two” opponent and third-party advocate Richard Winger argues that following the implementation of the new system, “California has had the greatest decline in voter turnout of any state … .” In his view, the reduced acrimony has a simple explanation: Voters approved Proposition 25 in 2010, which removed the two-thirds vote requirement for the Legislature to pass budgets. Democrats no longer need GOP votes to pass a budget, so that process goes more smoothly. Less acrimony in passing a budget isn’t necessarily the sign of a better budget — but of one party having complete dominance over the process.
And Winger credits the nonpartisan redistricting commission for boosting turnover given that it created more competitive districts than before.
The Open Primaries group points to two state legislative races to make their case. For instance, in a 2012 Assembly race in liberal Marin County north of San Francisco, two Democratic candidates (incumbent Michael Allen and challenger Marc Levine) faced off. In the old party based system, the report explains, the partisan Allen, who relocated from a newly split district, would have cruised to victory against a long-shot Republican. Under the new system he lost to Levine, who won “by creating a coalition of Democrats, Republicans and independents.”
Likewise, it’s clear the “top two” helped independent-minded Democrat Steve Glazer beat union-backed Democrat Susan Bonilla in a Bay Area Senate special election this year. Glazer won by courting independents and Republicans. That’s the goal of the Open Primaries folks: forcing candidates to speak to the widest group of voters.
But Winger worries about the impact on third parties. The new system works to keep these smaller parties (and their ideas) out of the general election. There’s no place even for a write-in protest vote, so it’s not a surprise many people don’t even vote.
Smaller parties ought to embrace the new system, said John Opdycke, president of Open Primaries, in a recent interview. Instead of “fighting to defend an impotent place on the ballot,” he thinks they “should be part of the conversation from Day 1.” The new primary allows them to leverage their vote percentage from the primary and then go to the top two candidates — and offer their endorsement in exchange for some attention to issues that concern them.
That might work. Then again, today’s reformers often complain about those Johnson-era reforms — and tout new proposals to change that system. Perhaps we’re expecting too much from the election process — and not enough from our fellow voters.
Greenhut is the San Diego Union-Tribune's California columnist. Write to him at [email protected]