Media Starting to Recognize How Top-Two Brought Business Back to California

California’s nonpartisan, top-two primary has been in place for two major elections now. Critics, including several media outlets in the state, have frequently argued that it has not done much to curb partisanship or polarization.

However, a large problem with this is political pundits and academic researchers have focused mostly on the state’s delegation in the U.S. Congress, while ignoring what has happened in Sacramento.

The top-two primary was passed by a majority of state voters in 2010 under Proposition 14. Under the new electoral system, all candidates and voters, regardless of political affiliation (or lack thereof) participate on a single ballot. The top two vote-getters move on to the general election regardless of how much of the primary vote they receive.

Top-two has not had the same impact in congressional races as it has in the California Legislature — not yet anyway.

But, unlike Washington D.C., the State Legislature has seen a shift toward the middle — especially on issues that concern businesses, such as over-regulation, minimum wage increases, and land development. While opponents of top-two claimed the primary system would not be successful at creating a more moderate Legislature, media outlets in the state are beginning to report otherwise.

“[V]oters have pretty much gotten what they wanted when they passed top two, at least in the Legislature,” writes Thomas Elias, a widely respected and syndicated political columnist. “Many voters told pollsters then they wanted more moderation and compromise in government, less gridlock. They now have just that; there have been no notable legislative deadlocks over the last two years-plus.”

“Few legislators themselves are willing to discuss the new configuration, but new Democratic Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins of San Diego did tell one reporter the combination of top two and term limits has created ‘wholehearted change in how the Legislature is structured and comes together.'” – Thomas Elias

Legislation has become a little more business-friendly as legislators in both parties move more toward the middle, which is good news for voters concerned that too many businesses were leaving the state. This is because the Democratic Party-controlled legislature, until recently, overwhelmingly favored liberal interest groups that turned out in their old partisan primaries over business interest groups like the California Chamber of Commerce.

“It’s noteworthy that even though the Legislature has a very liberal ambiance, the California Chamber of Commerce and other business groups have been remarkably successful in killing, sidetracking or changing bills that they dislike the most, which the chamber terms ‘job killers,'” writes Dan Walters for the Sacramento Bee.

“And that explains why the aforementioned liberal interests, which also include personal-injury lawyers and consumer advocates, intensely dislike the top-two system. They stand much better chances of electing more compatible Democrats under the old closed primary system in which handpicked candidates that win nomination in a Democratic June primary would be guaranteed election in November.”

Opponents argue that this means business interests have much more power in elections, giving them unchecked influence in the Legislature. However, not every purely pro-business candidate is winning under Top-Two. In his article, Elias points out that Democrat Steve Glazer lost a bitterly fought primary in the East Bay area after alienating labor completely by doing work for the Chamber.

Supporters of top-two argue that the system forces lawmakers in both parties to conform to the entire electorate — one that is largely rejecting political party labels altogether. A nonpartisan primary system, logically, takes power away from the parties’ more radical base voters — both the hardcore liberals and the far-right conservatives. As Walters puts it, these groups “see it as diluting their dominance of primaries.”

This means there is greater balance in the Legislature where legislation is not written to cater to either political extreme. This can only mean good things for the state’s economy as businesses respond to a less hostile legislative environment. In a big way, top-two is bringing businesses back to California.