Some critics appear to think California needs a better class of voters and candidates if the state is ever going to run the way it should.
Problem is, we’re pretty much stuck with the people and politicians we got, which means we’ve got to play the cards we’re dealt.
My colleague Joe Mathews had a post on this site recently about what he sees as a disastrous Los Angeles mayoral election where Eric Garcetti and Wendy Greuel remade themselves to appeal to voters and made the May 21 runoff because they had the most money to spend. Color me shocked.
But Joe moves beyond Los Angeles and argues that the new top-two ballot that premiered last June has the same problems as the L.A. vote and is nothing like the reform that was promised. Statewide catastrophe looms.
Nobody’s going to argue that the L.A. mayor’s race was Athenian democracy at its finest or that anyone’s campaign was especially edifying. But in the famous words of Mr. Dooley, “Politics ain’t beanbag,” and it would be hard to point to any California campaign where the angels sang.
Wait. In 1978, San Mateo County Democratic state Sen. Arlen Gregorio ran for a third term and refused to accept any contribution of more than $100 because of the potential special interest taint.
First, let’s stipulate that there’s no such thing as a truly non-partisan election in California, which is why our non-partisan state superintendent of public instruction spent the maximum 14 years as a Democratic legislator and our non-partisan insurance commission won the office after six years as a Democratic assemblyman.
In Los Angeles city, where 56 percent of the voters are Democrats, as opposed to 16 percent Republicans (and 18 percent decline to state), it’s no surprise that the two highest vote getters in that “non-partisan” March 5 election turned out to be Democrats or that they finished well ahead of the other six candidates.
While opponents of the top-two ballot, somewhat like the one used in Los Angeles, complain that it destroys the power of political parties, it actually recognizes the election realities of California.
First, Democrats outnumber Republicans in the state, 44 percent to 29 percent.
Second, those Republicans and Democrats aren’t evenly distributed across California. Even with the state’s far less political reapportionment process this time around, you can’t make competitive, two-party races when the partisan bodies aren’t there.
The top-two ballot recognizes that in a city like San Francisco, where the GOP makes up fewer than 9 percent of the registered voters, there’s never going to be a competitive general election race pitting a Republican against a Democrat. But if the top two candidates, regardless of party, make the November ballot, then voters have a choice.
Think it doesn’t work? Ask 80-year-old Democrat Pete Stark, who would be back in Congress for his 21st term under the old system. Instead, he lost his East Bay seat to another Democrat, 31-year-old Dublin Councilman Eric Swalwell, who finished second in the June primary, but pulled enough Republican and independent votes to beat Stark in November.
Those party-members-only primaries typically disenfranchised the 21 percent of California voters who weren’t affiliated with any political party. Sure, Democrats (but not Republicans) invited decline-to-state voters to cast ballots in their primary, but only on the sufferance of party leaders.
Would it be better to have Republicans and Democrats match up across the state in competitive contests that would be decided by which candidate better expressed his personal philosophy of government to crowds of eager, involved voters?
Sure, but that’s not going to happen. And remember, after the Lincoln-Douglas debates, it was Douglas who became senator.
Even the biggest boosters of the top-two ballot won’t argue that it’s perfect, only that it’s better than what it replaced. But the good thing about any real political reform effort is that there’s always room for a better idea.
But that better idea has to reflect, for better or worse, the reality of politics in California, not some pie-in-the-sky academic vision of the world as some would like it to be.
John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.