What happened this Tuesday in California?

CA Ballot boxBy Stephen Frank

Our primary election this Tuesday seems to be the result of what Charles Munger Jr. brought us when he pushed Proposition 14.  Prop 14 gave the people of California the “Top Two” open primary system instead of the traditional partisan primary. 

We only had an 18% primary turnout in three legislative districts with no GOP on the ballot–just NPP–and not a single third party. 

In 20 legislative races there was only one party represented on the ballot (for example: CD-25 with ONLY Republicans).

Eleven legislative candidates ran unopposed and in the Superintendent race’s it was Democrat vs. Democrat.

The fight for victory was mostly fought by special interests, i.e. between the very rich and well-funded unions. These special interests spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on select campaigns.  The same rich man who helped bring us this electoral system, Charles Munger Jr., son of Warren Buffett’s partner, spent over $500,000 each on two Assembly candidates—both lost (one being Mario de la Piedras in AD-44 in Ventura County). Munger also spent $700,000 in 2012 on an Assembly candidate and she lost as well.  Apparently he can change the system but can’t pick winners.

The California Teachers Association spent $1.4 million for an Assembly candidate (he is in a runoff) and $4 million for a candidate for Superintendent of Public Instruction (he is in a runoff). Other unions spent similar amounts for winners, losers and runoff candidates.

Then you have the “business” interest spending millions on both Democrats and Republicans. One business interest spent over a million dollars on an Assembly candidate, a Democrat who lost to another Democrat supported by the unions and a Republican supported by a very rich person. Crazy, huh?

This year, without any controversial ballot measures, statewide candidates that few cared about (except family, friends and special interests) most found going to work or the mall a more productive endeavor.  Come November there will be exciting ballot measures, though I predict very unexciting races for statewide offices. The voter turnout may even double—to 36 or 40%–still not a lot of voters.

What will it take to get voters out? Simple, make it mean something. Republicans try to sound like Democrats in November, but in June EVERY GOP’er, no matter how liberal, claims to be a “conservative”. Those that do not pay close attention believe it. As George Kostanza in Seinfeld said, “It is not a lie if you believe it.” Voters need to question each candidate, prove they are a conservative, or a liberal, that they are honest.

California has a $340 billion debt and a $10 billion cash deficit while EVERY member of the legislature and the Governor have claimed they oppose policies that put us in debt. If so, how did we get here—is this why people have no trust or respect for elected officials?

We cannot blame the proponents of Prop. 14 for the measure, after all, we voted it into law.  We need to take responsibility for our mistakes. I hope that now that we have seen how it works, we call it a grand experiment that failed and repeal it. Until then 18% in a primary might look really good.

Willing to return elections to election day? Please look at this analysis of our current electoral system.

PPIC is a well-respected think tank in California. In late April they produced a report based on the 2012 election. They had two key findings.

  1. In the 2012 General Election, there was a smaller turnout in districts that had only two candidates of the same Party on the ballot. That happened 28 times in 2012.
  2. Independent voters in the primary only vote when they feel there is a close race for a specific office.

The results from the Tuesday primary produced historically low voter turnout. In fact, it appears the goal of the Top Two primary system is to suppress the vote not get voters to the polls.

“The top two was meant to provide a better set of choices in the general election for heavily partisan districts where the fall outcome was typically a foregone conclusion. But it appeared to have discouraged vote choice in legislative or congressional primary races where two Republicans or two Democrats faced off.”

Analysis Also Finds Key Differences Between Primary, General Electorates, PPIC, 4/30/14:

In the first test of California’s top-two primary in 2012, the new system failed to produce the increase in voter turnout that many had hoped for. But it did appear to encourage participation of independent voters. Under the new system independents are no longer required to take the extra step of requesting a ballot with all legislative and congressional contests on it. As a result, more independents appear to have voted in these primary races than they had under the old system.

These are among the key findings of a report released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).

One of the goals of the top-two primary is to get more voters to the polls, but turnout in the 2012 California primary was the lowest of any presidential primary in 90 years. This was at least partly because the races for president and U.S. Senate were low key. But the result raised questions about turnout in primaries generally and about the impact of the new top-two system, in which voters can vote for any candidate from any party and the two top vote-getters—regardless of party—compete in the general election.

“Reform efforts to increase turnout may not prove particularly effective, but the top-two primary does appear to have already encouraged more independents to vote in legislative and congressional contests,” said Eric McGhee, PPIC research fellow and author of the report.

The shift to the top two has added new urgency to the question of who votes in the primary and who doesn’t. The PPIC report finds that California’s primary electorate is older, less likely to be Latino or Asian American, and typically more Republican than the electorate in the general election. The partisan differences mattered little in the old system because every party that ran at least one candidate in the primary would be assured a place on the fall ballot.

Now, primary voters can close off the possibility of a contest between parties in the fall. There has already been one primary race for a competitive seat that resulted in a same-party contest in November—the 31st congressional district in San Bernardino County. The PPIC analysis shows that the outcome almost certainly would have been different if the fall electorate had voted in the primary.

The true effect of the shift to the top-two primary will be clearer once the new system becomes more familiar to voters and to the campaign consultants looking to mobilize them. But an analysis of voter turnout in California primaries over time, as well as the experience of other states, yields the following conclusions:

  • California’s turnout is likely to continue to decline. Other states that have used open primaries over the past 30 years have not experienced generally higher turnout. Part of the reason is that independents appear to be fickle primary voters, inclined to participate only when a ballot includes a close race. At the same time, California’s primary turnout is one of the highest in the nation.
  • Compared to the general election, primary turnout is driven by the dynamics of individual candidate races and the presence of initiatives on the ballot. California’s decision to move citizen initiatives to the fall ballot can be expected to further depress turnout, since the June 2014 primary will be first in decades with no statewide citizen initiative. Two statewide measures placed on the ballot by the legislature may be enough to draw more voters to the polls this year. But in future primaries with no initiatives at all, turnout is likely to be between 3 and 7 percentage points lower than it might otherwise be.
  • The 2012 general electorate consistently voted in races for higher office—president or senator—but often skipped voting in same-party candidate races lower on the ballot. The top two was meant to provide a better set of choices in the general election for heavily partisan districts where the fall outcome was typically a foregone conclusion. But it appeared to have discouraged vote choice in legislative or congressional primary races where two Republicans or two Democrats faced off.
  • Contrary to some expectations, online registration and same-day registration may not increase voter turnout in the primaries. These two reforms do not appear to have boosted primary participation in other states.

Given the partisan and demographic biases of the primary electorate and the aggressive way the top-two primary winnows the field, McGhee suggests an option to explore: allowing more than two candidates in the general election in limited cases, whether through a write-in or an independent petition drive candidacy. Such candidacies are now explicitly forbidden under the top-two primary.

The report, Voter Turnout in Primary Elections, is supported with funding from the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation.

This article was derived from these two:



Editor’s note: Here’s also a Green Party Critique of prop 14: http://www.cagreens.org/blog/feinstein/amend-ca-elections-code-compensate-for-prop-14-negative-effects-on-smaller-parties


Steve Frank: Is the the publisher and editor of the California Political News and Views.  Mr. Frank speaks all over California and appears as a guest on several radio shows each week. He has also served as a guest host on radio talk shows and is a full time political consultant. http://capoliticalnews.com/

PPIC: is dedicated to informing and improving public policy in California through independent, objective, nonpartisan research on major economic, social, and political issues. The institute was established in 1994 with an endowment from William R. Hewlett. PPIC does not take or support positions on any ballot measure or on any local, state, or federal legislation, nor does it endorse, support, or oppose any political parties or candidates for public office.


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