California political reformers size up 'open' primaries, see progress

A better test of California's two big political reforms – an 'open' primary system and citizen-led redistricting – will come in November. But Tuesday's primaries yielded more competitive races and more candidates seeking middle ground, reformers say.

Daniel Dreifuss/The Santa Maria Times/AP
Lori Fisher of Arroyo Grande, Calif., casts her vote in the primary election Tuesday, June 3, 2014 at the San Luis Obispo South County Regional Center in San Luis Obispo, Calif.

California's political reformers, who want campaigns that are actually competitive and who envision the leaven of moderation at work in governance, sized up the state's primaries on Tuesday and pronounced that the reforms (drum roll, please) are beginning to pay off.

A greater number of races for Congress were truly competitive, and more candidates in state Senate and Assembly contests embraced positions that sought out middle ground, said James Mayer, president and CEO of California Forward, a coalition of five foundations that have worked for several years to re-envision government in the Golden State.

Of course, November will offer a better laboratory for assessing the effects of the state's two groundbreaking reforms. One handed to a citizens commission the task of drawing up new legislative districts; the other established an "open" primary system in which the top two vote-getters advance to the general election, regardless of party affiliation. Turnout on Tuesday was paltry and not representative of California voters as a whole, analysts note.

“The primary electorate is different than the general election electorate and so, a true test ... rolls around in November, not June,” says David McCuan, a political scientist at Sonoma State University. “The electorate this June was whiter, older, more affluent, and much more likely to be suburban and rural than urban. We see almost the complete opposite in November.”  

The aforementioned reforms, approved by Californians in 2010 as citizen-initiated ballot measures, are intended to address the political gridlock that had vexed the state for years, resulting finally in routine budgetary impasse, furloughed state workers, and a national reputation for dysfunction.

“The combination of citizens' redistricting and top-two primary is creating significant change,” says Mr. Mayer.

In Tuesday's primaries, 13 of the state's 53 congressional districts were truly competitive. “Five years ago," he says, "that number might have been one.” Even in some districts where one party holds a clear advantage, the partisan gap has narrowed, he says. “With a top-two primary, more candidates were reaching for the solid middle rather than the ideological edges.” 

Moreover, the Citizens Redistricting Commission that redrew legislative districts after the 2010 census produced some US House seats that are less "safe" for incumbents than before – and that has accelerated retirements and brought in some fresh faces, reformers suggest. Compare: The June 2004 primary featured just one open House seat in California stemming from a retirement. For the 2012 primary – the first under the newly drawn districts – five US representatives from California had retired, some of whose districts had been significantly redrawn.

How much the state's political reforms have contributed to greater functionality in government is not clear. Certainly, California is not the only place to have been stymied by political gridlock. Some have suggested that a dearth of competitive House races in the United States results in hardened political positions and a disinclination to seek compromise. In just 30 of 435 House seats do the front-runners or incumbents stand less than a 90 percent chance of winning in this year's midterms, according to a Washington Post Election Lab analysis.

The new rules are affecting races in state government, as well, says Mayer. He perceives that more candidates running for state Senate and Assembly were seeking out a middle political ground. 

“One clear result of these reforms … is candidates, including incumbents, have an incentive to speak to all voters and seek common ground,” says Mayer. “While parties and special-interest money are still controlling, the voice of voters – even with a low turnout – was a little louder yesterday in California.”

All of this has lessons for other states, analysts say.

“This means that states with the [ballot] initiative process will move redistricting changes and other political reform ideas at a faster pace than those stuck without the process,” says Mr. McCuan. “The process of direct democracy becomes a parallel legislature where what you can’t get through the state capitol or past a governor, you can go around and directly to the people. That is an important lesson for other states as they grapple with political gridlock.” 

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