Debunking Partisan Political ‘Studies’: Top-Two Primary Exceeds Expectations in Calif.

Author: 420 Times
Created: 10 February, 2015
Updated: 15 October, 2022
8 min read
In 2010, voters approved Proposition 14. This measure 

fundamentally changed California’s partisan primaries conducted under rules determined by private political parties into a nonpartisan system in which the purpose of the primary became a public one in which the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, advance to the general election.

This change has empowered millions of California voters with a meaningful opportunity to affect the outcome of elections in California. Nonpartisan voters are now guaranteed the right to vote in primaries. Republicans living in statistically “Democratic” districts -- and Democrats in “Republican” districts -- who were ignored by the political class when considering “their” best candidate, now matter. Libertarians and Greens can now actually elect candidates rather than simply act as spoilers for the two major parties.

At its core, nonpartisan primaries are about voting rights.

No citizen should be compelled to join a private organization in order to gain the right to a meaningful vote. And, no citizen’s vote should be made irrelevant by the coincidence of the neighborhood he or she lives in. (Think of the phrase, “That’s a Democratic/Republican district.”) What gives a private political party entitlement to exclude an entire class of voters in order to control an election?

After two election cycles, it is also clear that Prop. 14 has made the California Legislature a less partisan place. It is the natural result of making the politicians answerable to the broader electorate rather than to a narrow fringe of their own political party. Not surprisingly, most of this change has occurred in the majority party.

This has, of course, frustrated the political class -- populated by hyper-partisans who have a disproportionate share of political power and influence.

The best evidence of just how well Prop. 14 is working is the frenetic effort of an only thinly-disguised series of “studies” by partisan-backed “academics” to claim the opposite.

For those of us who know the players, these studies are more humorous than persuasive. But, for a political media that is itself part of the simplistic “red/blue” narrative of modern American politics, these partisan “think tank” efforts are to be taken seriously.

As often as possible, these efforts lead with the moniker “jungle primary.” Let’s start there. This is a term invented by partisan academicians years ago to describe partisan open primary systems that the Supreme Court has since struck down (see California Democratic Party v. Jones). The political parties successfully argued that they don’t have to allow nonmembers to participate in ‘their’ taxpayer-funded primary elections.

Still greater irony is found when ‘academics’ lump California and Washington together with Louisiana, a state that combines heavily gerrymandered districts with the removal of the primary election altogether in favor of a single general election with a post-November, low turnout ‘runoff’ that occurs only when no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote. The effect of this ‘winner-takes-all” system is that the political parties still control the election results.

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Truth is, California and the state of Washington are the only states in the union that have NONPARTISAN PRIMARIES. It is a critical legal and political distinction and is not replicated to date in any other state.

The “error” in description is not an innocent accident. It is a calculated effort to “brand” the California reform with terminology that does not poll well and with a track record in other states with PARTISAN systems that have no actual relevance to Washington or California.

Those of us involved in writing Prop. 14 believed then, and continue to believe, that it will take a full decade of results to measure its success.

 ranked California as having the MOST competitive elections in 2012, just 2 years after ranking the state as the LEAST competitive in the nation.

However, the first election in 2012 produced results exceeding our expectations. For example, the number of competitive elections increased substantially. In fact, Ballotpedia

True to form, the partisans attacked this accomplishment with, “this will mean that, collectively, the election will be more expensive.”

First, so what? By that measure, we should just save the money by having no elections at all.

Second, as it turns out, elections weren’t more expensive after all. What the new primary system did was reduce the ability of each political party to funnel ridiculous amounts of money into a very small number of races. Instead, they had to spread it out in an attempt to influence more voters – because more voters mattered!

It also produced a number of “same-party” contests in heavily Democratic or heavily Republican districts. These are districts where the winner would have been ‘de facto’ decided in the primary under a partisan system because the district leans so heavily toward one party or another.

Partisan operatives, of course, saw this as ‘wasting resources’ that could be focused against the other party. The truth, of course, is that this increases the power of VOTERS at the expense of political party operatives. This power shift was underscored by the fact that in “same-party” races, the candidate NOT endorsed by the political party won 67 percent of the elections.

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The real test of any election process though is not the election outcome; it is the behavior of the legislators after they are elected. The truth — as I experienced first hand — is that even the most partisan legislators privately gripe about the “irrational” expectations of their closest supporters. Hence the old adage, “it's always your friends who kill you.”

This is the consequence of being held hostage by the vocal minority of voters who disproportionately control lower turnout primary elections. Prop. 14 shifted that accountability to the broader, higher turnout general electorate.

The 2013/14 legislative sessions proved the effectiveness of making legislators accountable to this broader electorate as the Democratic legislative majority became significantly more moderate and the governor, insulated by the knowledge that he could fend of a partisan challenge from the left, moved the state away from the brink of bankruptcy.

This, of course, makes “progressives” all the more cranky. But, if we were in a “red’ state like Arizona, it would be the right wingers in the Republican majority that would be setting their hair on fire.

Indeed, when a similar proposition was put to voters in Arizona, it was the Koch brothers who funded television commercials featuring the incoming Democratic Party chair opposing open, nonpartisan primaries. Kinda says it all doesn’t it?

So now, in the aftermath of the 2014 elections, we have the most recent “academic” analysis precipitated by the party faithful. Thad Kousser from UCSD pens this particular effort.

You would think that a good progressive like Thad would have found some significance in the fact that in 2014, the nonpartisan, top-two primary produced the largest black caucus in California history -- including the election of black candidates in districts with relatively small black populations.


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He zeroed in on low voter turnout, without any reference to the historical lows experienced across the country in partisan primary states.

Did he mention the 14 percent turnout in Texas? No.

The 6 percent turnout in New Jersey? No.

The 9.7 percent in Iowa? No.

But to his credit, he did note a number of other factors unrelated to the primary system that contribute to low turnout, such as the general prevalence of voter apathy. And to his credit, he did spend one sentence to note that California’s turnout was actually higher than the national average.

Low voter turnout is a national disgrace. Ironically, when you talk to eligible voters who don’t turn out, you hear the same complaints over and over again: “my vote doesn’t matter,” “too much partisan bickering,” and “neither party represents me.”

These are perceptions based in a reality that we have created over decades.

The nonpartisan, top-two primary just changes the rules so that partisan pandering is more likely to be punished rather than rewarded. It will take many election cycles to win these voters over, but the nonpartisan, top-two system is part of the solution, not the problem.

If voter turnout is the immediate goal, there is more that we can do: Make elections shorter by moving the primary closer to November. Make Election Day special. Give workers Tuesday afternoon off with pay when they produce their voter slips.

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But, let's give Thad the benefit of the doubt with respect to sincerity of effort. His analysis is rooted 100 percent on partisan-based metrics.

For example, his entire look centered on a superficial analysis of the partisan makeup of the candidates and election winners. Absent in the entire analysis is any attempt to understand how the behavior of Democratic and Republican legislators is affected by the new landscape:

“In the end, though, the new rules did not seem to change the outcomes of any statewide races. Independent voters did not swing any contests, and the leading ‘no party preference’ candidates did not make it through to the general election.”

Thad was asked the following question at an Independent Voter Project sponsored event at the University of California, San Diego:

“You have analyzed the nonpartisan, top-two primary based on how campaigns are waged and legislators act within bench posts established by the “two-sides” of the presumed political aisle. How is the analysis affected if the parties have to move their bench posts because of the nonpartisan primary?”

Thad’s answer was …“I hadn’t thought of that.”

It is a critical distinction because over and over again voters have said that they want legislators to “govern,” whereas partisans want them to “win”: fundamentally different goals.

I have attributed this relatively sophomoric coverage to the relative ease that media folk can be manipulated by calculated partisan spin -- particularly when both “sides” are spinning the same direction.

Maybe I’ve become too cynical in my old age. Maybe the academics are just honestly blinded by the same binary view of American politics that dominates the chattering class.

Nah, they’re too smart for that … right?

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Photo Credit: Michael Warwick / shutterstock.com

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