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California

John J. Pitney, Jr.
Top-Two Blues
California’s elusive quest for “moderate candidates” and other reform follies
8 June 2012

On June 5, California held a new kind of primary election, which proponents hoped would lead to a new kind of politics. Alas, the new politics seems to resemble the old. For decades, the state ran a closed-primary system, with registered members of each party picking their nominees for the general election. (Independent, or “no party preference,” voters could not take part in these primaries.) A 1996 ballot measure changed the system to a “blanket” format, with all candidates on the same ballot. Voters could cast their ballots for any candidate; the top vote-getter from each party would advance to the general election.

In 2000, the Supreme Court struck down the blanket primary on the grounds that voters hostile to a party’s positions could hijack its nominations. In response, the state legislature established a modified version of the closed primary: each party would have the option of letting independents vote on its nominations. Critics argued that under the new system, each party’s base voters would effectively become the electoral gatekeepers. Sure enough, conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats spurned moderate candidates, leaving the state with a polarized political class. And this polarization, the critics concluded, fostered policy gridlock.

Then came Proposition 14, a ballot measure to change the primary process for congressional, statewide, and legislative races. As with the blanket primary, all candidates would be on the same ballot. But instead of resulting in one nominee per party, this system would send the top-two vote getters to the general election, regardless of party. In a heavily Democratic district, for instance, the primary could put two Democrats on the November ballot. The proposal passed with 54 percent of the vote on June 8, 2010 (but its terms dictated that the top-two primary wouldn’t go into effect until 2012).

Though former state senator Abel Maldonado, a Republican, was nominally the idea’s sponsor, the real impetus for the measure came from then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s office. As Vito Corleone would say, it was Schwarzenegger all along. His idea was to make primary candidates compete not just for partisan base voters, but also for independents and opposition-party voters. Thus, he reasoned, the system would nudge politicians to the Schwarzeneggerian center.

So how did it work out? In at least a few state assembly races, the top finishers included Republicans who hadn’t signed an oath against raising taxes. That’s important: California’s constitution requires a two-thirds vote of both legislative chambers to pass a tax hike. Thanks to favorable redistricting, Democrats will probably win a two-thirds majority in the state senate this fall. They will fall just short of that mark in the Assembly, but with a little Republican support, domineering Democrats could enact long-dreamed-of increases in tax rates. So if your definition of “centrism” involves higher taxes, the early signs are promising.

Under a broader definition, centrism could be elusive. On the Democratic side, some mildly pro-business candidates will compete in November’s general election. If and when they arrive in Sacramento, however, they will probably vote in line with the dominant liberals. Party discipline is all too real in the Capitol. Lawmakers who stray from the leadership’s wishes face sanctions ranging from loss of committee chairmanships to cuts in staff budgets. They may even end up in “the Dog House,” the unofficial name for the tiniest office in the building.

The power of party leadership will only grow in the years ahead. Voters on Tuesday approved a change in the term-limits law, allowing lawmakers to spend up to 12 years in one chamber or the other. Under the system in place since the early 1990s, they could serve only six years in the assembly and eight in the senate, resulting in constant turnover in leadership positions. Now, leaders can hold their posts much longer, giving them greater leverage over junior members.

Proponents of the “top-two” primary claimed that it would diminish the clout of interest groups, but in fact special interests figure only to get stronger. Candidates must now compete in primaries involving all registered voters, not just members of their own party. Bigger electorates result in costlier campaigns, which in turn require candidates to ask special interests for even more money. According to the Center for Investigative Reporting, by far the biggest donor to state campaigns is the California Teachers Association.

Some buyer’s remorse might be setting in. The Santa Cruz Sentinel, which endorsed Proposition 14 two years ago, now laments that third-party and independent candidates will be missing from most fall races. In about one-fifth of the elections for Congress and the legislature, voters will have no choice between parties: two Republicans or two Democrats will be on the ballot, and write-ins won’t count. Nevertheless, this system will be around for a while. In 2008, the Supreme Court upheld a similar process in Washington State. Californians should have ample opportunity to contemplate yet another “reform” that failed to work as advertised.

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