California’s good-government reformers experience nothing but victories. Just ask them. And so this spring’s record-low-turnout elections have occasioned not humble concession but – in a fit of Kardashian-level chutzpah – declarations of victory, albeit with a caveat that it may take years for the reforms to work fully. Whatever the heck that means.
I’m probably just beating my head up against some foundation’s or pundit’s brick wall to even ask this, but I wonder if I might be able to pull one small concession about these elections.
And it’s this: would the backers of the top-two-&-redistricting disaster at least concede that they did a thoroughly wretched job of public education before the election.
Here’s what that means. One would think that, in the first election under new reforms, that the reformers would pour all the resources they could muster into massive campaigns to educate the public on how the new system works. Since the system was supposed to empower independents, there should have been huge outreach to unaffiliated voters.
There was no such outreach. Which is sort of amazing – at least if you take the reformers at their word that they were pursuing this reform to increase turnout, civic engagement, and a broader debate that could lead to fixes of Californians. If you thought this was a cynical or unserious scheme to rig the elections in ways that reformers tend to favor, then you probably weren’t surprised at all.What would proper outreach have said? It would have screamed to the hills – and tried to engage voters, particularly independent voters – to convey two messages.
1. THIS IS NOT A PRIMARY SO YOU BETTER SHOW UP IF YOU WANT A FULL CHOICE OF CANDIDATES.
A top-two primary isn’t really a primary. It’s the first round of a general election. So backers of the top-two really had an obligation to let voters know that if they waited until the general election, their choices might well be constrained. This would be particularly important if you’re a highly partisan Democrat in a very Republican district, who didn’t know or care much about the individual candidates. You needed to know that there wouldn’t necessarily be a Democrat for you to vote for in the general election. So if you care who represents you – and you want a person of that party to represent you, vote now.
Voters who are members of minor parties should have received mail explaining clearly that their only real chance to vote for a member of their party would be in this first round – so they shouldn’t skip it.
2. INDEPENDENTS. THIS IS YOUR MOMENT
The message should have been clear that independents needed to get out and vote in the primaries this time. In the past, independent votes in primaries didn’t much matter, since they couldn’t vote for independents in primaries. They had to skip many candidate races, or vote in those parties who would have us (thank you, Democrats, for small favors). But this time, independents had a vote. Indeed, giving independents more choice – and giving a boost to moderates as a result – was supposed to be the whole point of this exercise.
But of course, backers of the reforms did not broadcast these messages in a clear coherent way. Big resources were not rallied. The Secretary of State did its usual solid job of explaining what was new, but the message didn’t have much reach. Maybe public education wouldn’t have made any difference; roughly 80 percent of California’s eligible-to-vote population seems to have figured out that state elections don’t mean all that much. But it would have been nice to try.
The fact that reformers haven’t conceded at least this much in terms of failure does not build confidence. Instead, they’ve talked about the November election as though that will be the real test of the system (do they not understand that the first round means more, in terms of voter choice?). Here’s the good news: the election results have not yet been certified. There’s still time for a concession.