Elections summit takes stock of California's nonpartisan top-two primary reform
August 21, 2015 by John Guenther
Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez (left), Dan Howle, co-chair of the Independent Voter Project, Allan Hoffenblum, Assembly Republican leader Kristin Olsen, and Stephen Walker, director of government affairs at CCPOA. (Photo Credit: Philip Ung/CA Fwd)
It's been five years since voters approved “The Top Two Primary.” California has been taking stock of the open primary election reform, to see if it will be another case of "As California goes, so goes the nation" or a political flop.
"I would never have entered this race and would never have won this race if there had not been the top-two primary,” Democratic State Senator Steve Glazer (D-Contra Costa), told the audience at the Nonpartisan Primary Summit. "One of the things the top-two did for me is it gave me some room for me to define what it meant to me to be a Democrat."
Glazer’s win over a more liberal Democrat was the most recent example of the influence this reform is having on California elections. But, is it resulting in reducing partisan bickering and gridlock while making elections more competitive and creating a more moderate and productive Legislature?
One Republican leader thinks so.
"Your average Californian wants Republicans and Democrats working together to identify bipartisan solutions and, at the end of the day, getting results on core priorities," said panelist and Assembly Republican leader Kristin Olsen (R-Modesto), who also called the Top Two a “step in the right direction.”
What is "Top Two?
Prior to 2010, a California voter not registered with either the Democratic or Republican parties (that’s about one-quarter of the voters) could request a ballot for either party at a statewide primary and vote accordingly, but would be limited to voting only for that party’s candidates. Proposition 14 gave every voter the right to vote for all candidates in primary elections, with the top two vote getters moving on to the general election.
Wednesday’s Summit was hosted by California Forward and the Independent Voter Project, and attracted state legislators, whose jobs depend on getting re-elected via the new system, political consultants and academics who study the consequences of reform on California elections.
One of those consequences is candidates from the same party can be pitted against each other in the general election as in the Glazer race. When that happens, the hope was candidates would have to work to differentiate themselves in other, presumably more centrist ways. While there appeared to be no consensus at the event whether there's been a moderating effect, many shared that the reform was creating more representative candidates.
"The thing about the top two is...I think in the areas particularly where there are open seats that we find out that voters can visualize that they're able to elect a representative that's not more moderate but more representative of the district as a whole," said Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of the California Target Book and former GOP strategist.
And attendees who study candidates for a living shared that campaigns appear to benefit when they don't go after the same old base of voters they're familiar with.
"What it does is, in these runoff elections, is give candidates the opportunity to go and appeal to voters that they normally wouldn't appeal to," said Martin Wilson, executive vice president of public affairs at the California Chamber of Commerce.
For others, the top-two reform was the simply the right thing to do on the principle, especially as the number of decline to state voters grows in California.
"What top-two did is for the first time appreciate that real democracy means having nonpartisan elections all together," said Chad Peace, attorney for Independent Voter Project. "When the government gets involved in sanctioning a process, funding a process, it should treat every voter the same whether they choose to join a political party or they do not."
The reform's objectives also included reaching inside the inner workings of the Legislature and cutting down on partisan rancor.
"I think we're seeing a moderating effect on public policy, allowing folks to find more common ground, work with colleagues in the Republican Party as well," said Assemblymember Adam Gray, a Central Valley Democrat. "I do feel strongly that we have a more civil environment in both the Assembly and the Senate. Engagement both between the parties and between the broad spectrum of ideologies that exist within these parties is in a much better place."
While the reform is still new to California, there's been some research showing the top-two nonpartisan primary, combined with citizen redistricting, has made the state's elections more competitive with more races having smaller margins of victory, compared to the rest of the country.
But, because of that competition, a side effect of the reform is elections can become more expensive.
"I'm happy that [top two] happened," said Assemblymember Cheryl Brown, a Democrat from the Inland Empire. "The one thing that I'm concerned about is you can spend a lot of money on the same two people running the second time."
What’s it’s doing to third parties in California? Because only two candidates end up on the ballot and other requirements, there's been big drop in the number of third party candidates making it to the primary election.
These issues for third parties might require future reforms, including maybe creating a "top three" primary instead and even allowing voters to rank primary candidates, an option raised at the event.
"And so in addition to the probability that third parties are less likely to qualify for the ballot over time because of this election inattention, they're also less likely to get donors," said Professor Kimberly Nalder of CSU Sacramento. "And it's this vicious cycle that means that third parties will struggle even more going forward under top two,"
Some have said that the reform is hurting voter turnout because when voters see two candidates from the same party, they'll skip the election.
Voter turnout has been declining for some time now. The trend continued in 2014 because, according to opening speaker Secretary of State Alex Padilla people said they didn't remember election deadlines, were too busy and thought their vote didn't matter because they believe special interests matter more.
It's clear there's more work to be done here, including increasing voter information and streamlining voter registration, reforming the way Californians cast their ballots, along with the more difficult work of convincing more people that voting does matter
A single reform won't make Sacramento more responsive nor will one get more people to vote, but it's the collective steps taken since California's modern "era of reform" started that is helping make the changes people are seeing.
"What's important is top two is part of a trifecta," said Wilson. "It's a holy trinity of reforms that have passed, the redistricting, the top two and the term limit reform. That's made a huge difference."