Top-two primary hurt competition in the Golden State

By Steven Hill, Sacramento Bee, August 4, 2012

In early June, California held an election featuring the first-time use of the top-two primary and legislative districts redrawn by an independent commission. Both of these reforms have been touted nationwide as ones that could help elect more moderates, decrease legislative polarization and increase competition and voter choice.

Yet a recent analysis by Fairvote of election results from the June 5 primary shows these reforms failed to live up to the hype. Even worse, the top-two primary turned many legislative races into a crapshoot that has led to undemocratic results.

Consider Congressional District 31. This district is a liberal-leaning district where Democrats have a voter registration edge over Republicans, 41 percent to 36 percent. It is highly diverse, with Latinos a near-majority – 49 percent – and whites less than 30 percent of the district.

Yet the “crapshoot primary” resulted in two white Republican candidates finishing in the top two with low vote percentages, and thereby making the November runoff. Fatally, the Democrats ran too many candidates – four Democrats split the liberal vote against two GOP candidates, and the lead Democrat missed the runoff by fewer than 1,500 votes. Forget Ralph Nader – the Democratic candidates all spoiled each other.

In Congressional District 8, a solid conservative district around Bakersfield, six Republican candidates badly split the conservative vote, resulting in the top two candidates each having 15 percent of the vote, only a couple of hundred votes ahead of the third-place finisher.

Or how about California’s 51st U.S. House District in San Diego? A strongly Democrat district, the lead candidate, a Democratic state senator, spent nearly $50,000 in support of a penniless Republican opponent to prevent his strongest rival, a fellow Democrat, from making the November election. The ruse worked, and now the Democrat will soundly trounce his Republican opponent in the runoff.

This is just a sample of the manipulations and strategies that are being deployed to game the crapshoot primary. In a number of these races, if fewer candidates had run, the results would have been different. It’s a roll of the dice to see who survives. Political party leaders will quickly figure this out and begin discouraging candidates from running to avoid splitting their parties’ vote. Political machines will gain even more influence. Such arbitrariness and perverse incentives undermine the legitimacy of the system.

But while the crapshoot primary turned some races into dice rolls, the vast majority of races looked the same as under the old system: no competition at all. Democratic incumbents like Nancy Pelosi and Barbara Lee and GOP incumbents like Darrell Issa and Dana Rohrabacher all finished so far ahead that there’s no doubt who will win in November. Most California races at federal and state levels still had no meaningful choices and no competition.

In some of these races, the primary resulted in two candidates from the same party finishing one-two and facing each other in a November runoff. In those races – 28 of the 153 seats at federal and state levels – the narrow choice for voters will be to pick which flavor of Democrat or Republican to elect. Minor parties, long an integral part of California’s political tradition, have been wiped off the November ballot. So the primary actually has reduced voter choice, not expanded it as proponents had promised.

In the face of these peculiar results, top-two advocates have mounted a media campaign to defend it. Dan Schnur of USC’s Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics claims that two candidates from the same party running against each other in the November runoff will “push candidates to the middle” in an effort to attract voters “from the other party as well as their own.”

Besides sounding like a formula for political mush, the top-two is highly unlikely to change how a legislator acts once elected. That’s because most of these same-party runoffs fall in districts that are safe, one-party fiefdoms. Sure, Democratic Congressman Howard Berman is angling for the GOP vote in his district to beat his November opponent, Democratic Congressman Brad Sherman. But is the liberal Berman going to change his spots once in office? Hardly, since he wants to be re-elected in a district where Democrats have a 22 percentage point voter registration edge over Republicans.

As a Californian, I supported a redistricting commission because it is common sense to take the line-drawing out of the hands of the incumbents. But these two reforms were oversold by well-meaning advocates, and the inherent defects of the reforms were ignored.

The June primary, which had historically low voter turnout – less than 30 percent, the lowest in California’s history for a presidential primary year – should be a wake-up call. California badly needs political reform, but the Golden State has been ignoring more promising possibilities.

Proportional representation would result in true multiparty democracy and representation across the spectrum, including moderates. Ranked choice voting, which gives voters a first, second and third ranking, would prevent the weird vote-splits created by the crapshoot primary and create incentives for broad coalitions. Public financing and free media time for campaigns would help counteract the boost that big donors received after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.

It’s time for Californians to get serious about enacting the types of political reforms that will reduce polarization, give voters more choice and elect candidates across the political spectrum.

Steven Hill is the former director of the Political Reform Program of the New America Foundation. His web site with additional writings is here

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