More Competitive Elections Improve Cooperation in Calif. Legislature

Since 65 percent of the members in the California Assembly are Democratic, it’s easy to make the assumption that Democrats single-handedly run the show in Sacramento.

State registration favors the Democratic Party with 44 percent of voters registered with the party. And while Democratic lawmakers no longer hold a two-thirds supermajority in the Legislature, they still hold a strong majority in Sacramento.

Take a closer look, however, and it becomes apparent that there is a major shift occurring in California.

The California Legislature is transitioning away from the hyper-partisanship that once defined California politics and is moving toward a more representative body of governance.

This change is a direct result of the nonpartisan, top-two open primary, which makes all candidates in California accountable to all voters as early on as the primary election. 

When asked about the biggest misconception about the inner workings of California politics, first term Assembly Member Jacqui Irwin (D-Thousand Oaks) said: 

“There is a perspective that Republicans and Democrats are completely at odds in Sacramento. There is an effort to try to find common ground. In reality, a significant amount of agreement exists on issues such as jobs and education.” – Jacqui Irwin, Calif. Assembly District 44

Jacqui Irwin represents Assembly District 44, where a majority of voters are outside the Democratic Party. In order to defeat Republican Rob McCoy, she had to focus her campaign on all voters in her district.

“The 44th Assembly district is a very diverse district socio-economically, racially, and geographically,” she said in an interview for IVN. “The needs of different parts of the district are also incredibly distinct.” 

Furthermore, over one-fifth of voters in the district are No Party Preference voters, or independent of the two major political parties.

Empowered by the nonpartisan, top-two primary, which passed in 2010, these voters were given a voice in the first integral stage of the electoral process. Irwin listened, which allowed her to narrowly defeat her opponent.

This has produced a group of legislators who now know that in order to win elections, they must work together to pass legislation that addresses the needs of all voters — not just party loyalists. According to Irwin, who was recently appointed chair of the Assembly Veterans Affairs Committee, it has produced a group of legislators willing to compromise:

“My colleagues and I may have different ideas about how to solve problems. What joins us together is knowing that the people of California elected us with the expectation that we will work together. They expect us to make our economy vibrant again by fostering strong job growth and streamlining regulations and permitting. They want California to be a leader in public education. They expect us to balance the state budget, build reserves, and cut wasteful spending.” – Jacqui Irwin, Calif. Assembly District 44

The case of Jacqui Irwin is not isolated. Since the passage of the nonpartisan, top-two primary, California went from having the least competitive elections in 2010 to leading the nation with the most competitive elections in 2014.

Under the new primary system, which advances the top two vote-getters, regardless of party affiliation, to the general election, California saw 25 intra-party races in the 2014 general election.

Looking forward, California will continue to see some of the most competitive elections in the country, one of which will be the race for U.S. Senate. The contest to replace U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer will be the first competitive race for a California U.S. Senate seat since 1992, when Boxer and Sen. Dianne Feinstein were first elected.

This means that for the first time in over 20 years, Democratic, Republican, and unaffiliated candidates alike will have to reach beyond their base if they want to represent California’s diversifying electorate in the U.S. Senate. When competition in statewide elections increases, all California voters win.