SACRAMENTO, CALIF. — California legislators, public affairs representatives, and reformers of all stripes attended the first-ever California Nonpartisan Primary Summit on Wednesday at the Citizen Hotel in Sacramento. The event, co-hosted by the Independent Voter Project (IVP) and California Forward (CA Fwd), featured a series of discussions on nonpartisan primaries, voting rights, and the future of election reform.
Proposition 14, better known as California’s nonpartisan, top-two primary, was passed by the majority of voters in 2010. Under the new primary system, all voters and candidates (regardless of political affiliation) participate on a single primary ballot and the top two vote-getters move on to the general election in November.
Since the time it was first implemented in the 2012 elections, political commentators have tried to understand its impact.
“[I] particularly hope that we can have a good discussion with a set of academics, a set of researches, practitioners, pundits, interest groups, and elected officials on their views… so [we have a] discussion based on facts and real insight into what’s going on and help get a good, rich discussion going on, around the state.”
Padilla Pitches Voter Participation, Motor Voter Initiative, and More
California Secretary of State Alex Padilla started the program with a reflection on his experience in politics and closed with a call on the audience and California voters to support a motor voter initiative, which was inspired by Oregon.
Padilla’s initiative could dramatically increase the already skyrocketing registration of no party preference voters, which has given pause to party insiders who think it may negatively impact their party’s status when it comes to already deteriorating voter rolls. Since 2010, decline-to-state voters in California have increased from 20.2 percent of the registered voting population to 23.6 percent – over half a million people in 5 years.
However, for Padilla, the goal is to improve access to the political process – and consequently, our democracy. Whether or not political parties fare better or worse in campaigns is what he calls ‘a political question.’
What is Top-Two Really About?
The first panel of the event was titled, “What is Top-Two Really About?” Panelists included Assemblymember Brian Maienschein; Cal State Sacramento professor Kimberly Nalder; attorney for IVP, Chad Peace; and Andrew Sinclair, assistant clinical professor of public policy at NYU.
What Is Top-Two Really About?
Three years after the first legislators were elected under top-two, politicos in the state are still trying to figure out what it was all about. To answer that question, Maienschein spoke from personal experience on what he has seen in Sacramento.
“There is a little less partisanship and a little bit more ability, I think, for people who are at least attempting to work together, who are more professional towards each other,” he said. “I don’t know if all of that can be attributed to top-two, but I think part of it can.”
When it comes to the reasons behind top-two, Chad Peace summed up what the author’s intent was from the outset:
“Really what it’s about is having a more representative, representative… It’s about authenticity more than anything else. It’s having somebody come out there and really represent the district rather than the party… I don’t think it’s about moderation at all; it’s about voters.”
Sinclair and Nalder served as the primary academic voices of the day and agreed it’s still too early to quantify the impact of the new primary system.
“It’s too early to know with good data exactly what outcomes will be,” Nalder explained. “One thing we have seen in a few races is when there are two Democrats competing against each other, business gets behind the business-friendly Democrat and they’re more likely to get elected.”
When asked if the success or failure of top-two could be found with traditional statistical modeling, Sinclair said, “Sort of.”
Guest Speaker Sen. Steve Glazer Puts People Over Party
Democratic state Senator Steve Glazer offered his first-hand experience of successfully navigating the nonpartisan system — a feat that he says would not have been possible unless top-two was in effect.
“I would not have entered this race and I would never have won this race if there had not been a top-two primary,” said Glazer.
Earlier this year, Glazer won a contentious special election in Senate District 7 after enduring several million dollars in negative campaign mailers and advertisements, which were sent to voters by his own party – the California Democratic Party.
His remarks centered around 6 points for how independent-minded candidates can make nonpartisan primaries work for them. They include:
- Create a base of support from real voters – not special interests;
- Define and disclose who you are as a candidate at the outset;
- Reject party support for nonpartisan offices;
- Be a problem solver;
- Stop filling out special interest questionnaires; and
- Stand up for beliefs and be willing to lose.
The Future of Nonpartisan Reform
The second panel focused on what next steps could be taken in California and elsewhere. Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of the CA Target Book; Stephen Walker, director of Government Affairs for CCPOA; IVP Co-Chair Dan Howle; and Assemblymembers Lorena Gonzalez and Kristin Olsen participated in the panel discussion.
The Future of Nonpartisan Reform
Panelists discussed where they would go next with electoral reform. Ultimately, the conversation revolved around improving voter turnout and participation, but each panelist had a unique take.
Hoffenblum offered three major factors that impact voter turnout, and focusing on those issues would hold the key to improving turnout.
“Candidates and campaigns are what drives voter turnout. The voters have to be interested in the races, they have to know who the candidates are, and they need to be given a reason in which to vote,” he said. He later added, “The one thing that I think has been shown that absolutely increases voter turnout is permanent absentee voting.”
Assemblymember Gonzalez, who sees herself as a ‘die-hard’ Democrat, argued for automatic voter registration as the big opportunity to remove the first hurdle to voting. Peculiarly, she’s already seen some push back, mainly from a traditional source for Democratic support – organized labor.
“This idea that somehow we’re worse off because we’ll have more nonpartisan voters, I think is interesting,” she said. She later added, “We know that registration is a barrier to voting. Taking away that barrier just makes sense.”
Assemblymember Olsen said turnout all comes back to trust in government.
“Our focus can’t be on increasing voter registration and thinking we’re done,” she argued. “We could register every Californian in the state and I’m not convinced it’s going to make much of a difference in voter turnout.”
“We will see turnout rise dramatically – when people feel like their vote matters, when people feel like they’re heard by elected officials,” she added.
Howle said the turnout question all depends on one’s frame of reference. He compared California’s turnout to that of New Jersey and Texas, states where primary turnout regularly drops below 10 percent.
“When you use a frame of reference, California isn’t that bad off. We’re way ahead of a lot of other places,” he said.
Stephen Walker cited a Pew report, which found younger voters aren’t nearly as interested in traditional party labels as previous generations. With less emphasis on party labels, Walker argued, candidates have been more inclined to find issues that resonate with their constituents.
“The thing that the open primary has done is brought more candidates that legitimately have something that resonates with people,” he said.
Top-Two’s Effect on CA Elections
The final panel of the day was called, “Top-Two’s Effect on California Elections,” with participation from Assemblymembers Cheryl Brown and Adam Gray. Pam Woudstra from California Golden and Martin Wilson, executive vice president of the California Chamber of Commerce, joined the legislators.
Top-Two’s Effect on CA Elections
With two legislators on the panel, personal experiences of how the new system had impacted their candidacies and actions in the legislature were brought up repeatedly.
Assemblymember Cheryl Brown pointed out that even having the opportunity to serve in the first place was something that wouldn’t have happened pre-Prop 14.
“Me running and me winning… I guess that’s something I never really expected,” she laughed.
Adam Gray believes that most positive aspect of the nonpartisan primary system is that it has expanded the number of competitive seats “by changing the coalition you can put together.”
“Competition is good in the economy and the marketplace, it’s good in politics – you get a better product, you get broader appeal,” he added.
While consultants Wilson and Woudstra didn’t share stories from inside the capitol, they did remark on what changes they’ve noticed in Sacramento since 2010.
“By in large it’s been very, very positive,” Wilson said. “What it does in these runoff elections is it gives the candidates the opportunity to go appeal to voters they normally wouldn’t appeal to.”
“I’m finding that positive, warm, fuzzy messaging actually has a greater impact on a lot of voters,” Woudstra added. “I think voters appreciate that much more than they did before.”
The six-hour program concluded with input from the audience, and a reminder from the hosts that this was just the beginning of a much longer conversation on how nonpartisan reform can be successful in California.
Editor’s note: IVN author Alex Gauthier contributed to the publication of this article.
Image: CA Secretary of State Alex Padilla (left) and CA State Senator Steve Glazer (right)