California’s “top-two” primary election system emerged from one of the oddest events in the state’s political history.
In 2009, Republican state Sen. Abel Maldonado withheld his vote on a state budget that included new taxes until legislative leaders promised, with obvious reluctance, to put the landmark election change on the ballot.
Then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was Maldonado’s co-conspirator in the squeeze play, with major business groups and some political reformers in the background.
They hoped it would crack the Legislature’s ideological gridlock by allowing more moderates – such as Maldonado – to win more seats.
Schwarzenegger later rewarded Maldonado by appointing him lieutenant governor, but his political career stalled. Republican hard-liners never forgave him for voting for taxes, fellow Latinos shunned him for being a Republican, and Democrats, who had the most to lose from top-two, were openly hostile.
Voters, however, adopted the new system in 2010, and we’ve had two election cycles under its provisions. All candidates are listed on the same June primary ballot and the top-two vote-getters, regardless of party, run off in the November general election.
Backers say it gives independent voters and those from parties without runoff candidates more clout, making election of very liberal or very conservative legislators less likely, and of moderates more likely.
It has had that effect in some areas. Two business-backed Democrats knocked off union-backed Assembly incumbents in 2012, for instance. And this year’s special Senate election in the Bay Area’s suburbs, in which Democrat Steve Glazer defeated Democrat Susan Bonilla, was a case study in top-two dynamics.
On Tuesday, Open Primaries, founded by Texas billionaire/philanthropist John Arnold, pronounced California’s system a “quiet revolution” and an unqualified success. Its report described a “sea change in voter access and representation, competitive elections, and a new, more cooperative state Legislature engaged in cross-party dialogue.”
The report credits top-two with breaking the cycle of stalemates on the state budget, such as the one in 2009 that gave Maldonado his opening, and even with balancing the budget.
Not so fast.
The report glosses over – largely ignores, in fact – other important factors, such as voters’ dropping the budget vote requirements from two-thirds to a simple majority, a temporary tax increase and, most of all, the first-ever redrawing of legislative districts by an independent commission rather than by legislators themselves.
The top-two system has certainly had a moderating effect, but it’s not the panacea Open Primaries describes, and the Legislature is still not as functional as this very large, very complex state needs it to be.
Arnold, by the way, seems to have a special interest in California. He’s backed efforts to overhaul California’s public pension system, earning him the enmity of the state’s powerful unions.