How is our representative democracy working in California?
In a word, dismally.
The June 3rd primary election selected party nominees for congress and the state legislature.
While the number of registered voters in California continues to increase — 16,123,970 as of last May – fewer and fewer participated in the primary election, reaching an historic low this election cycle, with less than 29 percent of California voters going to the polls.
The consequences of this are the ridiculously low number of votes that the top vote-getters received while winning their primary nomination.
In a hard-fought Democratic primary election in the 23rd Senate District, a district that stretches from Fairfax Boulevard in Los Angeles to downtown Oxnard in Ventura County, former Assembly Member Fran Pavley defeated her opponent, Assembly Member Lloyd Levine with 42,719 votes, which was 66 percent of the votes cast.
That 66 percent number looks impressive, but there are 238,682 registered Democrats in that senate district, meaning Pavley won with only 19 percent of the district’s registered Democrats.
In the 46th Assembly District, a heavily Latino district centered in downtown Los Angeles, the top vote getter in the Democratic Primary was John Perez, a Los Angeles commissioner and Mayor Villaraigosa’s cousin. He received 4,905 votes, little more than seven percent of the district’s registered Democrats.
It’s no better on the Republican side. In the 33rd Senate District in Orange County, Assembly Member Mimi Walters out polled her Republican opponent by receiving 50,422, which was 74 percent of the votes cast but only 19 percent of the registered Republicans in that district.
It is no excuse that this June primary was a stand alone primary, meaning there was no statewide candidate election to increase turnout. In the 2002 primary all the statewide constitutional offices from governor on down, was on the same primary ballot.
In AD40 that year, Lloyd Levine won his first primary with only 12,858 votes, 15% of the district’s registered Democrats, while in AD46, the now retiring Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez won his first primary election with 10,906 votes, 18% of the district’s registered Democrats.
Now this is where the fix comes in.
Back in 2001, the Democratic and Republican leadership forged a bi-partisan gerrymander of the district lines for congress and both houses of the state legislature. Gerrymandering is drawing of district lines in such a way that the districts become so heavily Democratic or Republican, that winning the primary is tantamount to winning in November, making the November General Election meaningless in all but a small handful of districts.
What can be done about this?
Californians need to bring competition back to elections.
Voters should join with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, former Gov. Gray Davis, California Common Cause, the AARP and the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce in support of a redistricting reform initiative that will be on the November ballot.
This reform would take away from politicians the power to draw their own districts, and place the responsibility in the hands of a 14-person citizens commission comprised of five Democrats, five Republicans and four from neither party. The initiative also requires that district lines respect the geographic integrity of cities, counties, neighborhoods, and of communities of interest.
This reform would create significantly more competitive districts for the November General Election. With more competitive November elections, primary voters will have a greater incentive to participate to make sure they pick the strongest candidate to duel the opposition in November.
The sad truth is that our elective system here in California is so broken that no one act of reform will offer a cure-all.
But supporting the redistricting reform initiative that will be on the November ballot is certainly a very good starting point.