Primary Election Shows Reform is on the Move

John Wildermuth
Journalist and Political Commentator

You know, I kinda liked “John Carter.” And if we’re handing out grades for Tuesday’s election, I’d give it at worst a gentleman’s “C.”

Joe Mathews, my compadre here at Fox and Hounds had a piece here the other day comparing the last week’s primary – and the redistricting and voting reforms that surrounded it – to the worst Hollywood disasters, “John Carter” among them.

“California Election Reform Flops” was the headline, which makes it pretty clear where Joe stands.

That’s a mighty harsh verdict on a statewide vote that hasn’t even been completed. As of Monday afternoon, there were still about 778,000 votes remaining to be counted in the state, with the final spots in more than a dozen contests still up for grabs. And, since it was a primary, part two of this election is coming up in November.

Still, Joe’s far from the only California pundit unhappy about the way the election turned out. “We were promised that this was going to change the face of California politics and it didn’t, dammit,” seems to be the main complaint.

Despite what a lot of Californians seem to think, 2008’s Prop. 11  was never designed to make elections more competitive. Instead, it was supposed to make them fairer by taking the politicians out of the process. Party makeup was specifically left out of consideration when the new redistricting commission drew up the district lines that will stand for the next 10 years.

That doesn’t mean a Republican now will have much of a chance to win in the Bay Area, or a Democrat in large chunks of Orange County or the Central Valley. And independent candidates, without the backing, financial and otherwise, of a major party and its partisans are always going to face an uphill climb, so it’s no surprise that folks like Nathan Fletcher, Anthony Adams or Linda Parks finished down the track.

But does that mean that the redistricting commission and the “top two” balloting failed? Aside from the folly of trying to predict the future from a single primary election, in plenty of ways the two election reforms worked exactly as advertised.

As John Ellis of the Fresno Bee pointed out, Rico Oller and Frank Bigelow, the two Republicans who finished on top in the 5th Assembly District, now face the previously unknown necessity of reaching out to Democratic voters if they want to win in November.

In years past, the winner of that GOP primary could spend his days contemplating which suit he was going to wear at his swearing in come January. Now each will spend the coming months persuading Democrats and independents that he will better represent their interests in the Legislature.

Then there’s Rep. Pete Stark in the East Bay’s Democrats-only 15th Congressional District. In his 20 House election campaigns, Stark has been re-elected with less than 60 percent only three times. In November 2010, he won 76 percent of the vote.

Last week, the 80-year-old Stark collected 42 percent of the vote, which another Democrat, Dublin Councilman Eric Swalwell, pulled in 36 percent. You think Stark doesn’t believe the new top two election rules haven’t made a difference in the election?

Similar dilemmas face Republicans and Democrats in districts across the state. Not in all of them, of course, but in a number of them. That may be bad news for candidates, but it’s a welcome change for voters.

There’s no denying last week’s turnout was lousy, but it’s a stretch to blame it on the election reforms. When the Republicans basically concede the Senate race to Democrat Dianne Feinstein – apologies to the GOP’s Elizabeth Emken and her 12.8 percent of the vote – and both the presidential contests already are decided, it’s pretty much a guarantee that only the hard-core voters will be showing up.

That’s essentially what happened in June 2008, when the presidential primaries were moved to February. With only congressional and legislative primaries and a couple of ballot measures to be contested, turnout was a puny 28.2 percent. Last week’s turnout has already passed that number, with those 778,000 ballots yet to be added to that total.

And California will see a whole lot more voters come November.

Then there’s the argument that the election reforms were somehow supposed to take the politics out of both redistricting and elections, something that not only is never going to happen, but never should happen.

Elections have consequences and partisanship is an important part of those consequences.

But both the new redistricting rules and top-two elections were designed to ensure that more voices are heard and that districts can’t be drawn so that one party can be ignored come election day.

Is that what happened last week? Maybe not, but is there anyone out there who thinks the vote would have been fairer and more representative under the rules that were in effect for every election up to June 5?

The primary election was a start, nothing more. And the November general election will be another step down the road. But for once, the state’s battle for election reform is moving in the right direction.

John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.

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