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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

By The Fix  |  June 9, 2010; 5:09 PM ET
Categories:  Politics and the Court  
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Next: Gresham Barrett tries to build a runoff case against Nikki Haley in S.C.


Will CA even have enough funds to hold a primary? Maybe with a little cash from Obama's stash.

Posted by: leapin | June 10, 2010 5:47 PM | Report abuse

Mark, this has been a pet issue of mine for a while. It’s not so much that I prefer the ‘Top Two over other potential reforms, but that it’s the one that’s the most realistically achievable in the most places.

Since we don’t have a parliamentary system, I’m not too concerned about 3rd parties—I want something that reforms the two we have. Perhaps one of the parties will moderate themselves enough that I could choose to reaffiliate (at one time I would have been either a Scoop Jackson Democrat or a Rockefeller Republican).

There are other actions I would prefer, first among them 'redistricting reform' in which political parties lose the power to draw their own 'safe' legislative districts (most of the truly extreme legislators like my own Rep Doug Lamborn come from these safe districts because they depend on the most motivated loyalists (read 'obsessive extremists') to win in primaries).

Another is ‘instant run-off’ in which the voter ranks multiple candidates in order of preference. The lowest vote-getter is eliminated and, if you voted for that person, your vote is then transferred to your second choice (this is the one that helps the 3rd parties).

But those others are far harder to sell…not realistically achievable and, if anything, I’m a rational pragmatist and I just want to make things work.

So, Top Two ain’t perfect, but it’s what’s possible…and it does mean candidates will have to talk to me and not just to their small group of intense crazies.

Posted by: malis | June 10, 2010 5:29 PM | Report abuse

On this issue, I must say that I am in pretty much complete agreement with 37th, both in analysis and opinion.

I am in favor of anything that reduces the power of political parties to control the process of determining who gets on the general election ballot. Will the parties try to clear their respective fields for single candidates? Of course. But we've had insurgent candidates (Paul, Haley, Angle, Halter, Lamont, etc.) mount challenges to incumbents or party favorites lately. A single open primary could inspire even more.

Let everyone run and let everyone vote. Then do it again with the top two. It's a two-step version of a process called "instant runoff," though less controversial. Yes, someone can finish first in the primary with 42% of the vote, but in the end the person who wins the election will be someone that more than 50% of the electorate voted for. No more winning with pluralities while the majority of voters wanted someone else.

It's a start. The next step is to make redistricting a non-partisan process.

Posted by: Gallenod | June 10, 2010 8:35 AM | Report abuse

Poor lonely Ped.

Posted by: Moonbat | June 10, 2010 8:06 AM | Report abuse


as if Republicans need any help deep-sixing themselves

you guys keep nominating people like Angle and Paul and all Democrats have to do is sit on their hands.

Posted by: Noacoler | June 10, 2010 3:11 AM | Report abuse

Poses potential for total chaos and a complete undermining of the 'two-party' system which I am certain is what the radical progressive libers in CA want. Their goal is total elimination of Republicans from any office.

Posted by: imaginemore | June 10, 2010 2:13 AM | Report abuse

This actually hurts the parties.

The issue the courts will have is: Are the parties entitled to the ballot positions they now enjoy ?

The government supports the parties with paying the expenses of the primaries - so the primaries in a way have to be held to the standards which governments are held -

The parties are essentially private - so they can make their own rules - and they have certain speech rights.

The question is: does the primary-general election format somehow violate a right that the parties now enjoy ???

I would say no, the parties are actually now granted a preferred position under the present system.

Primaries are run by government money, and as such they are not the domain of the parties.

What would be the basis of any objection of the paries?

The parties still have the right to associate and support the candidates they choose.

I am liking this new format - it changes things significantly - and it allows challengers a better chance.

Right now the parties have too much stranglehold - especially in gerrymandered districts.


Posted by: 37thand0street | June 9, 2010 11:52 PM | Report abuse

Im actually rooting for Alvin Greene to win.


Posted by: 37thand0street | June 9, 2010 11:28 PM | Report abuse

If this is challenged (and it will be) and gets to the Supreme Court, the court will do what the majority thinks is in the best interests of the Republican party, a consistent stance they have taken for 10 years.

And to the people who say this will lessen the influence of minor parties, please explain what influence they now have.

Posted by: lowercaselarry | June 9, 2010 10:54 PM | Report abuse

meh, there's no such thing as mandates. An elected official's mandate is what his constituents want it to be. If you change your mind as to what you want, you can petition your official to change his mind or vote differently. Mandates are media creations and don't compel anyone to do anything.

Posted by: DDAWD | June 9, 2010 10:26 PM | Report abuse

"No Excuses"- President Obama to Graduating High School Class

For those who believe otherwise, the BP well was approved and started on President Obama's "watch":
"U.S. Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) won his bid to become President of the United States of America on November 4, 2008. He was sworn into office on Tuesday, January 20, 2009"

"February 2009 - BP files a 52 page exploration and environmental impact plan for the Macondo well, located in Mississippi Canyon Block 252 in the United States sector of the Gulf of Mexico about 41 miles (66 km) off the Louisiana coast, with the Minerals Management Service (MMS), an arm of the United States Department of the Interior that oversees offshore drilling. The plan stated that it was "unlikely that an accidental surface or subsurface oil spill would occur from the proposed activities".[7] In the event an accident did take place the plan stated that due to the well being 48 miles (77 km) from shore and the response capabilities that would be implemented, no significant adverse impacts would be expected.[7] The Department of the Interior exempted BP's Gulf of Mexico drilling operation from a detailed environmental impact study after concluding that a massive oil spill was unlikely.[8][9]
February 15, 2010 - Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, owned by Transocean, begins drilling "

7. Burdeau, Cain; Mohr, Holbrook (2010-04-30). "Document: BP didn't plan for major oil spill". ABC News. Associated Press. Retrieved 2010-04-30.
8. Eilperin, Juliet (2010-05-05). "U.S. exempted BP's Gulf of Mexico drilling from environmental impact study". The Washington Post (The Washington Post Company). Retrieved 2010-05-16.
9. Jones, Jeffrey; Mason, Jeff. "RPT-BP's US Gulf project exempted from enviro analysis". Reuters. Retrieved 2010-05-16.

That's right Obama's fledgling administration's MMS took it upon itself to declare that the BP Deepwater Horizon well had a low probability of causing a massive oil spill....

Posted by: thecannula | June 9, 2010 10:26 PM | Report abuse

Oh, I don't know, vimrich, I don't think it's quite that bad, nothing as bad as Citizens United, which is an absolute travesty and destructive to democracy.

Had we had the same rule nationally then we never would have had George W. Bush, not without the 2% that Nader siphoned away from Al Gore. And we never would have had two pointless wars, a lot of military orphans would have fathers, Iraq would still be a toothless dictatorship instead of a client state of Iran. We wouldn't have had the Gulf spill.

On the other hand we might have had a second term of his father. Hmmm.

Posted by: Noacoler | June 9, 2010 9:37 PM | Report abuse

Well, there goes November. The only reason I still bother to vote is to make at least my one futile gesture - check off a third party or write-in candidate and try to keep the winner from ever getting to 50% (elections already misrepresent those with tiny vote leads claiming a "mandate" every few years).

Now, we're all forced to vote for one of only two names come election day? I won't play by those rules - period. This is absolutely turn-out-the-lights-on-whats-left-of democracy horrible.

Posted by: vimrich | June 9, 2010 9:24 PM | Report abuse


Posted by: TheBabeNemo | June 9, 2010 8:48 PM | Report abuse

I don't know about this - it certainly is interesting

Organization will be key - rather than and opposed to format right now.

I could see the opportunity for mischief - like that which is getting alleged in South Carolina this week in which an unknown candidate has won the democratic nomination for US Senate.

Obviously, the opposing party would WANT to see the votes of the opposite party split.

Overall, this is probably better than today's system which is pretty much horrible with too many gerrymandered districts being controlled by little known party committees.


Posted by: 37thand0street | June 9, 2010 8:38 PM | Report abuse

The gerrymandering - especially in the age of computers - has created some situations which are clearly undesirable.

The incumbents have a strangle-hold on the primary process - add a gerrymandered district to that - and no one outside of a multi-millionaire can challenge.

That is not democracy - it is bad for everyone and it invites corruption.

The role of the parties in such a system would be interesting.

Obviously, multiple candidates from one party spliting up the electorate is the thing to be feared - or desired - depending on your point of view.

So, the ability of both parties to unite their people will be key.

(I can think of an unusual scenario in a gerrymandered district - lets say 5 candidates fight it out from the majority party against 2 candidates from the minority party - the minority party could end up with the top two slots if the 5 split the majority party evenly)

The potential for mischief is obviously there.

Overall, this is probably an improvement over our present system - in which the primaries are not really contests - a closed hierarchy of pols pick the candidates - who move on.

This would definitely limit the influence of the party endorsements.

Overall, it is probably a good thing.


Posted by: 37thand0street | June 9, 2010 8:32 PM | Report abuse

URGENT TO Deputy U.S. Atty. for Civil Rights Tom Perez (staff, please forward):


• And local cops are A.W.O.L.

• Reporter's plea to U.S. Justice Dept. Civil Rights Division: "Rescue me from police-protected domestic terrorism in Bucks County, PA." OR

Posted by: scrivener50 | June 9, 2010 7:39 PM | Report abuse

Mark, the jungle primary might hurt third parties, but presumably, should also have a moderating effect on the mainstream parties as all the candidates will be facing the entire electorate, not just the members of his political party. Malis might not have his own viable party, but he will get more attention paid to him by the mainstream parties.

Posted by: DDAWD | June 9, 2010 7:08 PM | Report abuse

Malis, I do not understand how this does anything but weaken the two party system while destroying third parties completely, a parlay that seems impossible on its face, but which results when you combine "top two" with "Citizens United".

Your status as an independent would be protected best by open primaries.

Posted by: mark_in_austin | June 9, 2010 6:48 PM | Report abuse

Hoo-Rah! I want this now, everywhere (had taken this into account as a positive factor when considering a possible move to Washington state earlier this year).

This is the best, single, realistically achievable, near-term action to help combat the accelerating trend toward extremist politics; and as a registered independent, it gives me my voice back in primaries

I urge everyone to support a law or citizen initiative for Top-Two elections in your state

Posted by: malis | June 9, 2010 5:35 PM | Report abuse

The biggest effect of a "top two" primary is that gerrymandering slows down the reelection of incumbents. It allows a heavily Democratic district to replace an incumbent, as the general outcome of the primary is the incumbent and a challenger from the same party.

The biggest casualty of this system in Washington State was Seattle Mayor Nickels. He was eliminated in the 3 way primary which left the voters with the choice of a more radical right corporate mayor candidate and a more liberal left candidate who ultimately won. Mayor McGinn.

It remains to be seen whether this will ultimately benefit the city of Seattle or not. From my environmental first point of view, he's the best candidate but he's giving the business community conniptions.

Posted by: WashingtonGary | June 9, 2010 5:33 PM | Report abuse

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