You're Viewing the Archives
Return to IVN's Frontpage

Not So Liberal California? How Nonpartisan Primaries Changed the Legislature

by Michael Higham, published

The deadline for California Governor Jerry Brown to sign or veto legislation for the 2013-2014 session passed on October 13. About 10 percent of the 896 bills on his desk were vetoed. But despite a democratic majority in the Assembly and Senate, and a democratic governor, the laws that were signed were politically moderate. Why? California's top-two electoral system.

Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters analyzed the "winners and losers" of this year's legislative session. Initially, Walters stated:

Two of the bigger winners were public employee labor unions and groups representing the state’s 3 million illegal immigrants.

He cited laws such as the state minimum wage increase to $10 an hour and the ability for undocumented immigrants to obtain California driver's licenses. However, those were not the only laws passed. He continued:

Another winner was the business community – oddly, one might think, given the big Democratic legislative majorities and a slew of bills sponsored by unions, trial lawyers, consumer activists and environmental groups.

The Chamber of Commerce opposed 38 bills this legislative session, but only one passed -- which was the minimum wage bill.

Both environmental groups and the oil industry were unhappy with the passage of Senate Bill 4, which placed regulations on hydraulic fracturing (fracking). Groups like Sierra Club called for a moratorium on fracking, but Western State Petroleum Association said the bill "create conditions that will make it difficult to continue to provide a reliable supply of domestic petroleum energy for California."

Walters concluded:

The state’s still-troubled economy – and the advent of more Latino legislators from districts with high unemployment rates – may have been factors in why business was successful and environmentalists weren’t this year.

However, a factor that is just as significant could be California's top-two primary system. Instead of voters having to choose between a party nominated candidates in the general election, all voters choose candidates in the primary and the top-two vote getters move onto the general election regardless of party affiliation.

So, how does this lead to moderate legislation? Candidates can no longer rely solely on a party base to propel them through a primary election. By creating same-party general elections in a district that heavily favors that party, a moderate candidate has the opportunity to appeal to a broader base of voters. Once elected, legislators are accountable to that broader base of voters.

Tony Quinn of Fox & Hounds wrote that the top-two primary did exactly as it intended: create a moderate state legislature. Quinn said:

No longer can a Democrat win the primary in a safe Democratic seat, and coast to an easy election in November.  Several safe Democratic districts saw runoffs between two Democrats, and there will be more of these in the future.  While the business community had no luck electing Republicans in close contests in 2012, they did surprisingly well in the top two same party runoffs.   The success of the Chamber in defeating the ‘job killers” in the Assembly and Senate shows the power of the top two system in moderating the legislature.  The jury is no longer out on top two, it is working just like it was supposed to.

Photo Credit: Bryan Brazil /

About the Author