Will California's nonpartisan primary result in more moderate candidates?

Under the new format, the two candidates for California office receiving the most votes will advance regardless of their party affiliation. Proponents say it will result in less partisanship.

California is set to hold its first nonpartisan primary Tuesday, as analysts across the country look to see whether the new electoral format might encourage more moderate candidates for office and potentially end partisan gridlock.

Ushered in by the passage of Proposition 14 in June 2010, the new format – known as a "top-two primary" – alters the way that elections will be conducted for all congressional and statewide offices. Voters can cast their ballots in the primary election for any candidate, without regard to the political party of either the candidate or the voter. Candidates can choose whether or not to have their political party affiliation displayed on the ballot.

"Again, California appears poised to lead the nation,” says Villanova political scientist Lara Brown, author of “Jockeying for the American Presidency.” Noting that independents make up a growing share of the American electorate, she says California figured out a way to allow them to vote in their primary elections.

Proponents say that the new format will reduce the polarization of candidates.

“Although it will surely take some time for the electoral institutions and the voters to learn the ins and outs of the top-two selection method … over time, [it] could revolutionize California's politics and usher in a new electoral movement in the country,” Ms. Brown says.

Proposition 14 prohibits political parties from nominating candidates in a primary, although political parties will be allowed to endorse, support, or oppose candidates. The most recent state voter registration indicates that about 21 percent of voters registered with no party preference, while 43 percent are Democrats and 30 percent are Republicans.

Analysts say Tuesday's first test is expected to have very low turnout – for lack of compelling issues to be decided – but that some candidates are already trying to find middle ground. They cite the fact that several Democrats have taken positions angering public unions, traditionally their allies, while a few Republicans have refused to sign a no-tax pledge, a key requisite for the GOP here for years.

In one of the most watched and most expensive primaries in the nation, two veteran congressman, both Democrats, are competing in a newly-drawn district. Since there are two times as many Democrats as Republicans in the San Fernando district of US Reps. Howard Berman and Brad Sherman, both are expected to move on to the November ballot.

Critics say the new system will just be costlier and more confusing, bringing more candidates into the race.

“Right now there’s just confusion,” says Barbara O’Connor, director emeritus of the Institute for Study of Politics and Media at California State University, Sacramento. She notes that 26 candidates are running against veteran Sen. Dianne Feinstein. “I talked to several who filled out absentee ballots who were dumbfounded at the configuration of the ballot. Those who habitually vote for a full party slate now have to actually read them to see who is in it.”

Other analysts say the new primary has already made California’s House races much more competitive. From 2002 to 2010, for example, California held 265 elections for its 53 House seats, but only one seat ever switched parties, according to Kyle Kondik, House editor for the University of Virginia Center for Politics. But this year, 13 of the state’s 53 seats are rated at least somewhat competitive.

“I suspect that California will have a far less stable House delegation this decade as opposed to last,” says Mr. Kondik via e-mail. 

He says the key race to watch is California’s 26th Congressional District, which is held by Republican Rep. David Drier, who is not running for reelection.

“Because of the top-two primary, it’s possible that the Democrats’ preferred candidate, Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, won’t even make the general election,” says Kondik. “That’s because there are three other Democrats in the field, plus state Sen. Tony Strickland (R), and Ventura County Supervisor Linda Parks, a Republican-turned independent. Democrats fear that Strickland and Parks will advance to the general, leaving them without a candidate.”

It’s too early to tell, say analysts, but the changes could come with time. California’s Target Book has estimated that close to three dozen races will pit two candidates from the same party against each other in November.

“The idea of the top-two system is to get more moderation by producing two candidates who wouldn’t feel the need to be so polarizing,” says Ms. O’Connor. “I’m not sure it will make a difference immediately, but over time I do think it will make a difference.”

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