Recently, I debated Dan Schnur at the Sacramento Press Club over whether the new California election regime – with redistricting and the top two – represented an improvement on the previous system.
Dan, arguing in favor of the promise of the new system, was terrific and funny. But one of his arguments didn’t make sense to me during the conversation — and makes even less sense the more I think about it.
He said repeatedly that Californians need to give the new system time to work. It will take a while, he said, for campaigns to figure out how to use the system, in the same way it took a while for college basketball teams to figure out how to use the three-point line.
There are two problems with this argument. For one thing, it sees elections as the province of consultants and candidates – and new election rules as something that must be figured out by the pros. That’s backwards. Election reform should work for the public and for voters first – and this system creates confusion for voters in the first round, creates incentives for even more negative campaigns in the second round, limits choice for minor party voters, and eliminates the rights of members of political parties to decide their own nominees.
The other problem with waiting comes from the example of the other top-two states: Louisiana and Washington. They’ve gone through years of top-two, and have nothing to show for it.
New research by the political scientist Todd Donovan on Washington state, which adopted top two in 2004, has found that top-two “did not create a legislature that looked different or functioned differently from the legislature elected under a partisan primary.” It did not create a group of legislators committed to governing between the 40-yard lines, which was Schnur’s expressed hope for the new California election system. And it didn’t reduce legislative gridlock, which was at the heart of the ballot arguments for Prop 14 in 2010.
So why wait? Especially when there are plenty of options for comprehensive constitutional reform – from proportional representation elections, to a rollback of the state’s supermajority and budget rules that require consensus, to reform of the inflexible initiative process — that would make it easier to govern California.