Assessing the effects of California's Proposition 14
California voters on Tuesday chose Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina as Republican nominees for governor and Senate, respectively -- victories that drew widespread national attention. The passage of Proposition 14, however, may be the vote with the longest-term impact on Golden State politics.
The measure, which passed by a 54 percent to 46 percent margin, creates a top two -- or jungle -- primary process similar to the one in place currently in Washington State.
Here's how it works: All candidates will participate in a single, open primary in which the top two finishers, regardless of party, advance to a general election runoff. That means multiple candidates from each party can run in the primary and split the votes any number of ways, including by getting voters from other parties to cross over. It also means that two Democrats or two Republicans could wind up duking it out in the general election.
The change in how candidates are nominated is significant because California is such a large state -- nearly one in every eight members of the U.S. House hails from there -- and because the measure is universally disliked by all political parties, both major and minor.
The stated goal of the proposition is to elect more moderates to office. And, indeed, it was spearheaded by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) and his new lieutenant governor, Abel Maldonado. Maldonado, a former state senator, secured the ballot measure as part of an agreement to cross over and vote for the stalemated Democratic budget last year.
So are we ushering in a new era of moderate politics in the notoriously gerrymandered California political delegation? (Thank you Phil Burton.)
Experts range between skeptical and dubious.
"I would expect a small increase," said Eric McGhee, a research fellow at the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California. "There's just not much evidence that it adjusts the ideology of elected officials that much."
University of California, Berkeley professor Bruce Cain has studied the effects of California's experimentation with the somewhat-similar "blanket primary" in the 1990s. Under that process, the top candidate from each party would advance to the general election, rather than just the top two vote-getters.
Cain said opponents of the "top two" proposition were left with little choice but to let it pass given the current anti-establishment political environment.
"They didn't think it was good time to try and defend the status quo," Cain said. "They think, through coordination, this won't hurt them that much."
That's not to say, of course, that there won't be a legal fight. The system in Washington state, which was approved in 2004 and put in place before the 2008 election, is still being challenged in federal court. And California's experiment with the nonpartisan "blanket" primary in the 1990s was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Even if the act does lead to more moderate lawmakers, it's hard to discern where that might take hold.
Independent Washington state pollster Stuart Elway said his state has a pretty moderate government, but that he wasn't sure if it was the cause or a symptom of the state's historically unusual primary process. (It had a blanket primary for nearly a century before adopting the "top two.")
"We tend to think that because we had blanket primary for 90 years and you could vote for either party in the primary, that had a moderating influence," Elway said, adding that the jury's out on the moderating influence of "top two."
The measure is opposed by both major parties in the California, and it is downright despised by minor parties, who in California have had some influence. They see their chance at relevancy obliterated by the financial and organizational edges enjoyed by the two major parties.
More than anything, the measure could lead to uncertainty. Under a most unusual circumstance, you could feasibly have six or eight Democrats and two Republicans running in a heavily Democratic district, only to see the runoff feature the two Republicans.
Some also see the format as inviting "invisible primaries" -- i.e. deal-making behind the scenes to clear the way for establishment candidates and not having too many from one party.
Change, it would seem, is inevitable if Prop. 14 withstands the de rigeur legal challenge.
-- Aaron Blake
June 9, 2010; 5:09 PM ET
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