California a political model? Golden State has most competitive elections.
Known for gridlock and dysfunction, California has the most competitive elections, according to a new survey. It's the result of state political reforms that are now taking effect.
Elections for the California state Legislature are the most competitive in the country this year, according to a new analysis, suggesting that wholesale reforms here are beginning to change a political system known for perpetual gridlock.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Whether those changes will improve California government – and whether they will last – remain to be proven, many experts say. But competitiveness is a key measure of political vibrancy and the report is a positive sign for Golden State politics, they add.
“Competitiveness gives voters a real choice in elections," says Steven Schier, political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. "It is an essential element for popular control of government.”
California has fared well in the previous two editions of Ballotpedia's State Legislative Electoral Competitive Index, finishing eighth in 2010, for example. Yet its improvement in one key area of the online almanac's survey – "Do incumbents face a primary challenger?" – has been dramatic. In 2010, 9.7 percent of California incumbents faced a primary challenger. This year, the figure has jumped to 35.7 percent.
(The two other elements of the Ballotpedia ranking deal with whether an incumbent is running and whether there are two major-party contestants in the general election.)
The jump in the competitiveness in primaries for California state legislators can be directly traced to two political reforms passed by ballot initiative in 2010, which are taking effect for the first time this year.
- First, voters took redistricting out of the hands of the legislature and gave it to a nonpartisan commission.
- Second, voters threw out the old primary system and replaced it with a "Top Two" primary, in which any voter can vote for any candidate, and the top two vote-getters – regardless of party – advance to the general election.
Indeed, California’s ideological polarization during the past decade – seen as fundamentally linked to its rising gridlock – was rooted in the redistricting plan of 2002, which maximized incumbent safety and minimized general-election competition, says Lara Brown, author of “Jockeying for the American Presidency.”
In the 2010 initiatives, California voters “did something that is exceedingly difficult: changing the rules that structure the electoral process over the heads of the incumbents who have every interest to retain the status quo," says Professor Brown. "The new redistricting map and the new primary law are now beginning to change the politicians. In the not too distant future, Californians are also likely to see a change in the politics in Sacramento.”
“Primary elections for seats in the US House, state Senate, and state Assembly were either uncompetitive for partisan incumbents, or when there were open seats, they turned into ideological fidelity battles for the challengers,” she adds.