Decade later, California’s ‘top two’ primary gets mixed results

The California primary will not be remembered for what happened in a sprawling Senate district stretching from Lake Tahoe to Death Valley. But maybe it should.

After all, the only sure thing in the elections that ended Tuesday should be that the Republicans win the elections in California’s 4th Senate District. The region twice endorsed former President Trump along with a slew of Republicans in national and statewide races dating back at least to 2010.

But early election results have produced a surprise. Two Democrats appear poised to advance to the Nov. 8 vote, the result of a six-man field of GOP candidates splitting the vote thinly and California’s top-two primary system, which made its debut in 2012.

Whether primary election rules have improved or hindered voters has been debated almost continuously for a decade. Some of the most tantalizing promises made a decade ago — for example, that pragmatic candidates would prevail against partisans — have not materialized.

“There was a long list of arguments that were made,” said Paul Mitchell, one of the state’s most prominent political data analysts. “But the record doesn’t match what advocates promised.”

The second-best California primary removed the partisan barriers to participation and instead offered every voter the same multiparty slate of candidates. November’s election, in turn, became the equivalent of a championship round between June’s two top-scoring hopefuls.

“Proposition 14 will open primary elections,” primary advocates wrote in the state election guide the year the proposal was ratified by voters. “It will reduce deadlock by choosing the best candidates.”

A decade’s worth of data isn’t enough to make a judgment, said Steve Peace, a former Democratic state congressman turned advocate of independent voters and an architect of the first two primary elections.

“Ten years are overnight,” he said. “You have to treat it like it’s an investment.”

Still, the change didn’t inspire California voters to show up for the primary. Only in two California primary elections since 1998 has registered voter turnout exceeded 50%, and those were presidential elections in 2000 and 2008. Otherwise, 1982 was the last time a majority of registered voters cast their ballots in a primary.

Since 2012, when the top two rules went into effect, an average of just 37.6% of registered voters have participated in primary elections. Tuesday’s turnout won’t be clear for a few weeks but could be below average.

“I think the intent for the first two was good,” said Kim Alexander, president of the non-partisan California Voter Foundation. “But I think it’s a little too smart. She expects more from voters than is realistic.”

The promises made by supporters of the first two primary elections fell largely into one of three categories: increased turnout from the state’s growing number of independent voters, a decline in the number of ultra-partisans elected to office, and more competitive races for seats in California’s legislature and congress.

“To change the government, we need to change the kind of people we send to the Capitol to represent us,” wrote supporters in the 2010 Voter Guide in favor of Proposition 14.

But the results from a decade of primaries seem tenuous — especially considering the promise that voting rules would encourage greater participation from California’s independent voters registered as “no party preference.” Under the traditional “closed primary” system, political parties often excluded independent voters from their state and congressional primaries. In California races, Proposition 14 made a voter’s affiliation irrelevant.

And yet independent voters have not rushed in to cast ballots.

Research compiled by Political Data Inc., a campaign consulting firm, shows a persistent disparity in primary voter turnout between voters registered with political parties and those who are not. In 2010, just before the arrival of the first two primary elections, the turnout of independent voters lagged behind that of partisans by 17 percentage points.

The gap narrowed slightly for a few years, but was at 18 percentage points in 2018, pretty much back where things started.

As for the second promise — an expectation that the first two primaries would promote moderate, centrist candidates — it’s unclear how many voters would even want that outcome in the current political environment, let alone know how to achieve it.

While Proposition 14 was the result of an overnight hearing in Sacramento to pass a state budget in 2009, Peace and others had drafted versions of the new primary rules as early as 2006, a political period when the then-governor. Arnold Schwarzenegger promised the dawn of a “post-partisan” era of politics that valued pragmatism and common ground.

Partisanship increased until 2012, when the new primary rules came into effect. The Tea Party’s shift to the right was followed by the liberal power struggles in the 2016 election and the clash between the two movements in the bitter acrimony sparked by Trump’s election.

“The expectations were that the top-2 system would lead to moderation,” said Sara Sadhwani, a professor of political science at Pomona College. “But at the time we could not clearly foresee the bipartisan nature of national politics.”

Independent voters who are misidentified as having “no party preference” by California election officials often have a preference and stick with it. Recent polls by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California found that just 12% of nonpartisan voters said they do not lean toward either major party. Of those who have a preference, 52% of independents said they generally side with Democrats.

“There have always been very idealized efforts to remove parties from politics,” said Eric McGhee, PPIC Senior Fellow. “But that’s just not how mass democracies work.”

Even the second-best primaries haven’t changed the fundamental way candidates win elections.

Should the Sierra Nevada Senate race end with two Democrats — union leader Tim Robertson and school administrator Marie Alvarado-Gil — most Republicans in the region are likely to skip November’s race. Same-party runoffs in the fall election have not resulted in elections in which candidates form broad coalitions. Instead, the campaigns routinely seek to iron out minor differences between the two hopefuls, a strategy often funded by powerful niche interest groups.

“These top 2 races and the runoffs could become elections about small, small issues,” said Andrew Acosta, Democratic campaign adviser. “It may not be a high disagreement.”

In some cases, the differences can get personal. Sadhwani’s research into a subset of November campaigns found voters focused on racial identity, a lens through which divisions can emerge.

“It doesn’t necessarily lead to moderation” in the winner’s political positions, she said of the top two primaries. “It leads to support for group-based identities.”

A decade of California’s top two primaries has produced other changes as well.

Smaller political parties have all but disappeared from the general election, unable to muster the resources to run large, professional campaigns that can compete with Democrats and Republicans. Independent candidates fared no better — only one candidate with no party preference won a seat in the legislature, largely because he was the incumbent and former Republican chairman of the assembly.

For Peace, the reviews miss the point. He argues that smaller voters are better than loose voters going through a predictable list of candidates. Still, he said, the first two primaries probably should have been the “top four” or some other number of candidates that would keep voters from being stuck with a binary choice.

“There is no such thing as a perfect system,” he said. “Some of it you just have to take a bite out of.”

According to Peace, proponents of open primary elections are working on a new version, although the hurdles to change – another electoral measure subject to the financial interests of politicians – appear high.

And the effectiveness of electoral reforms like the first two primary elections is difficult to measure, even after 10 years and more than 900 state, congressional and legislative elections conducted under their rules. The ultimate test is whether voters feel well represented.

“It’s easy to fill out a ballot,” said Alexander of the California Voter Foundation. “But making informed decisions is a lot of work.” Decade later, California’s ‘top two’ primary gets mixed results

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