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Electoral Reforms Led to More Close Races, Experts Say

Nov 20, 2012

Credit Joe Moore / Valley Public Radio

Now that the dust has settled after this month's general election, political observers from across the state are busy examining the results to see just what effect California's efforts at redistricting and electoral reform had in their first full test at the ballot box. Valley Public Radio's Joe Moore reports that in same cases, the result is too close to call. 

For most California voters, the trip to the ballot box this November looked much like it always has, albeit with longer lines at some polling places and a record number of "vote by mail" ballots.

But the biggest changes actually took place behind the scenes, as this month's election was the state's first under new district maps drawn by the Citizens Redistricting Commission, and the first complete cycle under the state's new "top two" elections law. 

So exactly what effect did those reforms have on election results across the state? Eric McGhee, a policy fellow with the non-partisan Public Policy Institute of California says the biggest change was in the number of close outcomes.

"There were a lot more of those this time around than we had seen over the previous five election cycles," says McGhee.

In 2012, 18 percent of races between candidates of opposing parties were decided by a margin of less than 10 points. That's over double the average from elections over the past decade.  And in the 28 races where two candidates from the same party faced each other in the general election, 27 took place in districts which had not seen competitive races in the past. 

"The same party races [change] was a real innovation. I don't think anybody knew quite what to expect of those. And they made for competitive contests in districts where you just simply would not have had one in the past. Where the number of competitive races would have been zero in the fall election. And now it was a third of those races  that were competitive by that standard," says McGhee.

Kim Alexander, president and founder of the California Voter Foundation, says the new process made the June primary more competitive as well. 

"Those candidates that made it into the top two and got onto the ballot in the the general fought very hard in the primary to get there. And many of them found themselves appealing to voters from other parties and independent voters in order to secure a place on the ballot for fall," says Alexander. "So I do think that we saw in this election year, more in June than November, we saw candidates reaching across the isle trying to get supporters that they normally wouldn't be courting to back their candidacy."

She says that the new primary system, combined with new district maps also made life more difficult for incumbents, especially those in districts that lean heavily toward one party.  

"It used to be that if you didn't like the incumbent of your party who was representing you in Congress or in the Legislature, you had to wait till that person retired or was term limited out of their seat to actually do anything about it," says Alexander. "Now, because of the top two, I would argue that people don't have to wait anymore. They can actually challenge a sitting incumbent in the primary and we saw a lot of that happen this year," says Alexander.

Still, incumbents had a pretty good track record, with just three losses in the Assembly, none in state Senate and seven in the U.S. House.

Voters ushered in this new era in California politics back in 2010, when Proposition 14 became law, with 53 percent of the vote. Before this election cycle, each party would field its own candidate in the November general election. This year, voters in the primary got to choose from a long list of candidates from multiple parties, and only the top two went on to the general election.

Supporters claimed it would not only lead to more competitive races, but also would bring out more moderate candidates. 

"One of the primary goals that people had for these reforms was to elect more moderates to office, people who would be willing to cross party lines to get things done and solve the problems facing the state and the nation. I think it's just too early still to say whether that has happened," says McGhee.

Opponents however claim that the top two primary system also  hurts voter choice, and helps to reinforce the two dominant political parties. Many of California's smaller parties are concerned that their candidates might never stand a chance of making to the top two under the current system.

And even in the primary, voters face a different dilemma, according to Michael Feinstein, spokesperson for the Green Party of California.

"The primary voting system, where you have five Republicans and four Democrats, and three Libertarians and four Greens and two this and four that, the dynamic is even harder for us to get our true vote there, than it is otherwise because of the less of evil dynamic," says Feinstein. "If you're somebody who thinks Green but is concerned that the "greenest" Democrat make it into the November runoff of the only top two, there's even less incentive for you to vote Green there, than there is in the general election," says Feinstein.

Keith Smith, an assistant professor of political science at the University of the Pacific, agrees that the system hurts voter choice and reinforces the two party system. He says that while other countries that have tried the top two system have seen it lead to the growth of multiple parties, "that's true except when you switch from a system that has a strong two party system like we have in California, with two dominant political parties, that stays when you make the change," says Smith.

And even supporters like Alexander note that opponents of Prop 14 who claimed the law would lead to more expensive elections were right. 

"That is one of the byproducts that you get when you have more competition. On the one hand people think competition is a good thing and we need more of it. On the other hand they say 'wow this is costing a lot of money to have all of these competitive races up and down the state, who is paying for this and what are we going to owe them down the line?' And that's a very fair concern," says Alexander.

So what does the future hold? Kim Alexander says she thinks the major parties and candidates may adapt to the new system. 

"One thing that we saw a few instances of this election were candidates who wanted to get in the top two, were eyeing the other candidates in the race, saw someone who they thought was a threat to them, and ended up pushing a different candidate successfully and pushed their leading opponent out altogether. So you do see this monkeying around in the primary, but I think more of that may go on."

But despite the changes, in some ways the future may be more of the same. The average margin of victory for incumbents in  the November election was 33 percent, about the same as the average over the past ten years. And even in contests between candidates of the same party, the candidate who won the party's official endorsement most often won at the ballot box as well.

As for the theory that the top two system may lead more more moderates in office, professor Smith says that as long as powerful interest groups, labor on the left, and anti-tax groups on the right retain their influence, little is likely to change. 

"Maybe the parties moderate a little bit, but I don't see them moderating their positions that much. And I certainly don't see the affiliated groups moderating their positions in a way that would get us different kinds of candidates running for office," says Smith.

And McGhee says in other states that have tried this sort of election reform, the long term results aren't all that dramatically different. 

"If you look at how these kinds of reforms have played out in other states in the past, they haven't had a huge impact. They've had a maybe a very small, on the margins kind of impact," says McGhee.

He says the bigger change in Sacramento in the near future may actually be much more old fashioned, in the form of the supermajority that Democrats now hold in the Legislature.

"How does that change the political dynamic? Is this going to embolden Democrats to be more radical in some sense, or is it going to make some of the key votes that are necessary for any kinds of two-thirds type of decision, any of those Democratic votes more cautious and more sort of moderate as a result. We just don't know the answer to that. But it definitely muddies the water in terms of evaluating the impact of these reforms," says McGhee.

Next week, we continue our series with a look at how the "top two" election reform has some concerned that it may lead to the extinction of some of California's smaller political parties.