Much of this year’s legislative and congressional drama has focused on the decennial redistricting, but the greater impact could come from our seemingly annual attempt to change election systems in California.
Whether it is blanket primaries, open primaries, ranked-choice voting, or the new top-two primary election system, we appear to be unable to satisfy our appetite for election system changes.
With the constant shifts come myths and misperceptions about what it will all mean.
I have heard Sacramento insiders claim the system awards the victory outright to anyone who gets over 50 percent in the primary. Not true.
I have heard PAC directors say they are not going to spend money until November because none of these races will be decided in June. Not wise.
I’ve heard consultants retooling campaigns because Republicans will be voting for the best Democrat and Democrats will vote for the best Republican. An overstatement at best.
The Top Two primary system will allow all candidates to run on the same ballot, designating themselves as “preferring” a party or no party at all. Voters will be able to vote for anyone. And the top two candidates, no matter if one gets 99 percent and the other gets 1 percent, will go on to the General Election.
In the race for CD 44 (Compton, Southgate, San Pedro), Democrats Janice Hahn, Laura Richardson and Isadore Hall are waging a primary in a seat with a 50-point Democratic registration advantage. The only way a Republican makes it to November in this super-majority Democratic seat is if there is no second Democrat on the ballot. This race is virtually guaranteed to be a nasty intra-party duel in November.
But what about the big battles, like Berman vs. Sherman and Miller vs. Royce?
It is likely that both will be decided in June. The Berman/Sherman district has consistently seen around 53 percent Democratic turnout in the primary, and 38 percent Republican. A Republican who dominates with those voters is guaranteed second place.
The Miller/Royce district is similar. Primary turnout is around 50 percent Republican and 35 percent Democratic. One Democrat on the ballot would settle the race in June. A PAC waiting until November to engage could see its ability to impact the race pass right on by.
Even without the general election matchups, some claim the real impact is that ALL voters will be in play, not just the reliable base from one’s own party.
For the past several election cycles, decline-to-state voters have been able to select a Democratic or Republican ballot, allowing them to vote in all of that party’s contests.
But the new order is different: Now they can vote in June for a Democrat for Senate and a Republican for Assembly. However, history shows that voters very rarely split the ticket in this manner. You will sometimes hear about a liberal voting in a Republican primary to spike a candidate – such as voting for Pat Robertson because they think Republicans deserve him. But that is an anomaly, not a trend; people generally do not play these kinds of games with their votes.
Data from the past several elections shows when a decline-to-state voter in California selects a partisan ballot they may vote at the top of the ticket, but have a significant drop-off by the time they get to legislative contests.
In 2001, under the last open primary, the Democratic primary saw incumbents Jack Scott and Scott Wildman running for the state Senate in a district stretching from Burbank to Pasadena. Both sides mailed to Republicans and decline-to-state voters, but the most compelling finding in the data was the utter lack of participation by non-Democrats.
Republicans mostly voted for the Republican candidates, and non-Latino decline-to-state voters stayed out. For every five mailers sent, less than one person voted in the Democratic primary. Mailing to those voters was about as cost effective as mailing to the phone book.
Some rarely discussed consequences of the new rules are the potential negative implications for minority candidates and disproportionate impact on Democrats.
Latinos and African Americans in urban and rural seats can dominate the Democratic primary by voting in bloc, allowing them to select a candidate of choice, then take their Democratic standard bearer to the general election.
The Karen Bass congressional district is a good example. It is the most heavily African American congressional district at 34 percent of eligible voters, but accounts for upwards of 60 percent of the Democratic primary electorate. It is also the third-most Jewish district in the state and has six of the most LGBT neighborhoods in L.A.
Once earning the Democratic nomination in the old system, the Jewish, LGBT, decline-to-state and largely white voters will reliably cast ballots for Bass against a Republican in the general election. But how would that change in a top-two system if the contest is between Karen Bass and a white Jewish or LGBT Democrat instead of a token Republican?
Legal filings by the state in 2001 used the old primary-vote rolling argument before the Department of Justice in a Section 5 filing after redistricting. The state argued for Central Valley districts that “in the Democratic primary a cohesive Latino voting block can determine the Democratic candidate” and then the Democratic-leaning electorate would elect that candidate in the general. This made the old closed-primary system a requisite portion of the calculation.
But ditch the traditional primary system and you wipe away the protection of Latinos in these seats.
Finally, the new Top Two system is a structure that will impact Democrats much more than Republicans. Throughout the state there are a half-dozen Congressional districts that have 4:1 Democratic super-majorities and another dozen that have a 2:1 Democratic registration advantage.
There are zero Republican districts with a 2:1 advantage over Democrats. There isn’t even a single county in California that reaches 50 percent Republican. An excellent study by the nonpartisan Center for Governmental Studies found that nearly all of the intra-party battles would be on the Democratic side.
This could be the greatest impact of the new system. Democrats, who generally have a major funding advantage over Republicans, will be wasting their general election resources in a handful of races in ultra-liberal communities like Santa Monica rather than in swing areas like Bakersfield.
Labor, consumer attorneys, teachers, environmental groups and other base Democratic funders used to pour millions of dollars and thousands of precinct walkers into the Democratic Caucus target sfor November. In 2012 they will instead be allocating these resources in battles between Democrats in Southgate rather than pick-up seats in San Diego or Sacramento.
Is this what voters wanted when they passed Prop 14? Likely not.
Is it something that the political infrastructure in California is completely unprepared for? Definitely.
Ed’s Note: Paul Mitchell, a veteran Democratic consultant and regular contributor to Capitol Weekly, specializes in redistricting issues.