“Top Two” Takes California

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe & Doug Jeffe
Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, Professor of the Practice of Public Policy Communication, Sol Price School of Public Policy, University of Southern California, and Doug Jeffe, Communications and Public Affairs Strategist

Despite the grumbling of pundits and partisans, California’s top-two primary is almost certainly here to stay.  The voters like it and the system fits the realities of this state’s politics.

California no longer has a functioning two-party system and that is not going to change anytime soon.  The presidency of Donald Trump has served to accelerate the downsizing of the state’s GOP, which is approaching minor party status; it’s been surpassed by No Party Preference (NPP) voters on California’s electoral rolls.

It looks like the only potentially competitive statewide contests in November will be for Lieutenant Governor (a race between two Democrats), Insurance Commissioner (a Democrat and an NPP candidate) and Superintendent of Public Instruction (a nominally non-partisan race between two Democrats).  Under the old closed primary system, the Democratic nominees for Lieutenant Governor and Insurance Commissioner would both have been shoo-ins.

The Greens, Libertarians and other minor parties complain they are shut out by the new system, but when is the last time that a statewide, third-party candidate was relevant, let alone a potential winner? On the other hand, in district races this year, at least two Green Party candidates made it into the November run-offs.

There are also claims that the top-two primary invites mischief, such as Gavin Newsom’s smart commercial painting John Cox as the Trump candidate.  Well, mischief is nothing new.  Remember 2002, when the Gray Davis campaign undercut Richard Riordan’s chances in the GOP Primary by airing clips of the former LA Mayor talking about abortion.  In a time when well-heeled, free-wheeling independent expenditure committees are plentiful, mischief making is going to thrive in either an open or closed primary system.

District-level races present a more complicated equation, but there is little reason to believe that the top-two primary has seriously upended the natural order of things.  Democrats didn’t get shut out in any of the potentially swing Congressional districts that may be pivotal to control of the House of Representatives.  The instance where many cried foul, because Democratic bigwigs cynically poured money into a barrage against GOP Assemblyman Rocky Chavez in CD 49, had nothing to do with the open primary.  Even under the old system, there would have been an incentive to undercut Chavez as a more moderate and electable GOP candidate.

Touted by former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger as a vehicle to push California politics back toward the center, the top-two primary hasn’t made a dramatic change in the ideological make-up of the State Legislature, but it probably has had an influence at the margins.  There really aren’t many competitive districts but, in those districts, candidates must appeal to the entire electorate, not just their own party.  Especially in run offs between two Democrats, the votes of Republicans and independents can spell the difference in November—encouraging more centrist stands by the candidates.

It should be remembered that the top-two primary is still relatively new, and voters and candidates will be gradually come to understand it better.  Among the growing number of NPP voters, there are still many who don’t realize they can cast a meaningful ballot in the primary.  The Secretary of State and local election officials would be well advised to run educational campaigns before the primaries to make sure the electorate understands the new system.

There’s already a proposal floating around out there to replace the current top-two primary. The “California Top-Four Primary Initiative” could pop up on the November ballot. All candidates in the primary election would still be listed on one ballot, but the top four vote-getters, regardless of party affiliation, would move into the general election. In the 2018 gubernatorial election, that would have meant that Newsom and Cox would remain in contention and Villaraigosa and Allen would still be politically alive. And what a confusing, expensive dust-up would we see!

California’s election system remains a work in progress.  Every change has its advantages and disadvantages and there are no magic solutions.  The bottom line is any system is only as good as the people who inhabit it. That that means everything possible should be done to encourage voter participation and civic engagement.

That’s tough these days, when distrust and turbulence are the coins of the political realm.

Remember the wise words of Shakespeare’s Cassius:

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves…”

Give the top-two primary time to work—or blow up–before tossing another attempt to bring voters back into the electoral debate onto the political scrap heap.

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