California electoral reform fails its first test

By Steven Hill, Sacramento Bee, November 16, 2012

The verdict is now in for the two political reforms pushed by former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and passed by voters. Both the top-two primary and independent redistricting commission have failed to live up to their billing.

Both of these reforms were touted as ones that would help elect more moderates, decrease legislative polarization and increase competition and voter choice. Did they accomplish that? Let’s look at the impacts, first from the 30,000-foot level.

* More moderate Legislature? Instead, we ended up with a Legislature in which the Democratic Party has a two-thirds majority. The Legislature is now more one-sided than ever before. No political party in California has had a two-thirds majority in a chamber since 1976, and Democrats now have lost any incentives for compromise.

* Choice for voters? Most voters had less choice on the November ballot than they have seen in years. In the November 2010 elections for state Assembly, Senate and U.S. Congress (a total of 153 races), there were 77 independent and minor party candidates on the ballot. In the November 2012 elections, there were eight – a huge decline.

In addition, 28 races had two candidates from the same political party. So in those races voters never even heard from one of the two major parties.

Top-two primary advocates cite this handful of same-party races as evidence of the merits of their reform, because in these solidly partisan districts they produced more competition between opponents from the same political party.

But does anyone really believe there is much difference between liberal Democrats Howard Berman and Brad Sherman, or between liberal Democrats Pete Stark or Eric Swalwell, who faced off against each other? These are still heavily Democratic districts and the final result amounted to electing the same brand of Democrat. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

* Competition? Most races were still vastly noncompetitive. In the Assembly, 80 percent of races were won by comfortable margins of at least 10 percentage points, 60 percent by landslides (defined as greater than 20 points). In the Senate, 86 percent were won by comfortable 10-point margins, and in U.S. House races, 74 percent were won by comfortable margins and 57 percent by landslides. The average margin of victory for incumbents was no different than it has been for the past 10 years.

The new redistricting plans did create a few more competitive races. In those races between candidates of opposing parties, 8 percent (10 races) had a margin of victory of fewer than five points, which is more than double the 3.1 percent average of the previous 10 years. Also, 10 incumbents lost, and seven of them had their districts significantly redrawn. But those sorts of competitive effects usually are heightened in the first race with the new lines, and become less pronounced in subsequent elections as the new incumbent settles into the district.

Top-two proponents point to the handful of same-party races as evidence of more competition, but of these 28 races only five in the Assembly were close (defined as a victory margin of five points or fewer), and none in the Senate or U.S. House races. Three more same-party assembly races and two in the U.S. House (and none in the Senate) were won by fewer than 10-point margins.

So out of 153 races, that’s a mere 3.3 percent to 6.5 percent of races that plausibly can be called “more competitive” as a result of the top-two primary.

* Better representation? Barack Obama won 59.3 percent of the vote in California, an indicator of the strength of the statewide Democratic vote. Yet the Democrats won nearly 68 percent of the seats in both the state Assembly and Senate, and 72 percent of U.S. House seats.

Zooming down from 30,000 feet to the ground level, let’s look at individual races, particularly that in Congressional District 31. That’s a liberal-leaning district that includes Ontario and San Bernardino, with Latinos a near-majority (49 percent) and whites less than 30 percent of the population. Yet voters in District 31 were offered the choice of two white Republicans on the November ballot. Why? Because the Democrats ran four candidates last June and split the liberal vote, resulting in none of the Democrats making the November runoff. That kind of vote-splitting happened in about two dozen races last June.

The top-two primary has turned many races into a crapshoot where the results are completely dependent on how many candidates run. It’s conceivable that in a future election for governor so many candidates will run that the final election in November will have only two Democrats or two Republicans on the ballot because the votes split in unpredictable ways.

Top-two proponents have responded, “Well, it’s only been one election, the real impacts haven’t kicked in yet.” But a recent study by FairVote of the use of the top-two primary in Washington state shows that after three election cycles the alleged benefits have still not “kicked in.” It has not resulted in more competition, more choice, more moderates getting elected or a less partisan Legislature.

On balance, these reforms have done little to improve California politics, and the top-two primary actually has made things worse. They did not increase political choice and competition overall, and produced a state Legislature that is more partisan than ever. The Golden State needs to consider more promising reforms such as proportional representation, which is really the best method to increase competition and choice for voters across the political spectrum, including moderates.

Steven Hill is the author of “10 Steps to Repair American Democracy: 2012 Election Edition,”

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