California’s Proposition 14 was designed as an antidote for the increased polarization and partisanship in American politics.
Yet three years after its passage, observers are divided over how it has changed the state’s political landscape.
The measure implemented a “top-two” primary system, sometimes called a “jungle primary,” in which the top-two vote-getters, regardless of party affiliation, face off in the general election. Citizens, in turn, can vote for any candidate on a standard primary election ballot. Prop 14 passed with 54 percent of the vote in June 2010, and began being used for the first time in the 2012 elections.
It’s one of several proposals—including nonpartisan redistricting and the elimination of the supermajority requirement for passing a budget—that is designed to decrease polarization in the state legislature. As Congress’ approval rating has hit an all-time low and polarization is at an all-time high [link to National Journal partisanship report], some say similar measures are needed in federal elections to fix Washington.
Still, there’s still no consensus on how Prop 14 is changing California politics. Here ways four it affecting the state:
Elects more moderates?
Proponents say this system has helped elect more moderate politicians, because it forces them to appeal to a broader constituency than if they were running in a traditional partisan primary.
“What tends to happen with top-two primaries at the local government level is a more centrist candidate tends to win over a more partisan or extreme candidate,” said Joe Rodota, former political and policy advisor for former Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, as well as California Govs. Pete Wilson and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
This has already impacted state politicians and the California congressional delegation, including at least one member of the Tea Party.
In one state assembly race, two Republicans advanced to the general election. Although Rico Oller won the primary, he lost to the more moderate candidate Frank Bigelow in November. Without the top-two system, Oller would have been elected to the Assembly, rather than Bigelow.
However, others say that it’s too soon to see a real difference.
“In this past election, there was generally a status quo outcome so we should be cautious about concluding too much from it,” said Eric McGhee, a research fellow at the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California.
In fact, there are currently two other states that use this primary system—Washington and Louisiana. While Washington continues to have one of the most polarized legislatures in the country, Louisiana has one of the least.
Makes incumbents more vulnerable?
Questions also surround the proposal’s effect on incumbents.
“The biggest thing to look for is how many incumbents it will drive out of office,” said Bill Whalen, former chief speechwriter and director of public relations for former Gov. Wilson and current Hoover Institute research fellow. “The open primaries have made once-invulnerable congressmen vulnerable.”
There were nine ultimately successful candidates who wouldn’t have advanced to the 2012 general election without the top-two system, according to McGhee.
One of those candidates was Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA). Swalwell trailed 20-term incumbent Rep. Pete Stark, a fellow Democrat, in the primary, but beat him in the general election.
“Coupled with independent redistricting, top-two was a game changer in my race,” Swalwell said. “Had both of those reforms not been in place, I wouldn’t have run, because I wouldn’t have had a chance.”
But Christina Tobin, chairwoman of StopTopTwo.org and former Libertarian state candidate for secretary of state, said the top-two system is just another way of saying, “Protect the incumbent,” because it limits who can advance to the general.
“You’re left with two candidates who are so alike in campaigning that it doesn’t give the voters a real choice,” she said.
‘Biggest threat to independents and third parties in the last 50 years’
Tobin also argues that the jungle primary makes it more difficult for third parties and independents.
“It’s the biggest threat to independents and third parties in the last 50 years,” she said. “It makes it much more difficult for minor parties to qualify.”
Previously, these candidates were guaranteed to appear on the ballot in the general election, but now that’s not the case.
Moreover, Prop 14 also imposed a ban on write-in votes.
Plus, all candidates must either pay a fee ranging from about $1,000 to $2,000 or gather signatures from registered voters.
“The effect was to remove all minor parties from the ballot, because almost none of the minor parties are going to be able to meet these rules,” said Keith Smith, an assistant professor of political science at the University of the Pacific in Stockton.
Limiting party power?
Meanwhile, the Republican and Democratic parties are also trying to find their way in this new system. Smith says parties can still be influential, even with the majority runoff system.
“The logic behind Prop 14 gets only part of the polarization thing right,” he said. “It completely leaves out all of the other partisan actors like the parties, affiliated groups, and activists.”
But election lawyer Gautam Dutta says that it may strengthen them.
“Prop 14 really does the opposite of what it’s supposed to do,” Dutta said. “It gives more power to the party structure.”
He points to the 2012 race in California’s 31st district, where two Republicans advanced to the general election even though the district is heavily Democratic. This is because four Democratic candidates split the vote, giving Republicans the advantage. Dutta predicts this will encourage parties to play a greater role in selecting a candidate, and then clearing the field.
“This would only happen if parties are going to pick favorites, but parties have always done that,” he said. “If parties were happy about it, why did they so vehemently oppose it when it was on the ballot?”
McGhee agrees this isn’t something parties want to deal with right now.
“It’s a headache for the parties,” he said. “It gives them less control because there are some districts with only one strong party.”
In fact, there were 28 races in California where the two candidates in the general election were from the same party, McGhee noted. But Swalwell says top two isn’t as scary as it might seem.
“We’re [the Democratic Party], a big tent party that can talk about…issues that affect all voters,” he said. “We shouldn’t run away from that.”