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Left and Lefter: Beware Election Reforms that Eliminate Voter Choice (Forbes.com) September 2, 2016

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds, Politics.

This fall voters in California face a choice in the race for U.S. Senate that is effectively no choice at all. They can vote for the liberal Democrat Loretta Sanchez or the liberal Democrat Kamala Harris. There is no Republican candidate. It’s left or lefter, that’s the choice. As a consequence, a poll by the Public Policy Institute of California shows half of Republican voters will not even cast a ballot in that race. So much for the two-party system in California.

How did this happen? In 2010, reformers advocated and California voters passed an amendment to the state constitution that created a single primary in which all voters of any party could cast ballots and the top two winners would proceed to the fall election. The Republicans ran several candidates, none of whom mustered enough votes to finish in the top two, and voila: we have two Democrats running for the U.S. Senate, one of whom, Loretta Sanchez, isn’t even running much of a campaign.

These reforms are sometimes referred to as an open primary and a top two primary. The case was they would force parties to run more centrist and less extreme candidates, leading to more moderate officeholders who would be inclined to break the gridlock and move the state forward. Then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger claimed the new system would “change the political landscape in California, finally giving the voters the power to hold politicians truly accountable.” People would be so excited it would increase voter turnout too. Sliced bread anyone?

It turns out that the reformers were wrong and wronger. Early research indicates that there has not really been much change at all in favor of more moderate officeholders in California since the new primary system was implemented. A recent study published in the California Journal of Politics and Policy at U.C. Berkeley reviewed several papers on the subject and concluded that the desired outcomes of more competitive contests and more ideologically moderate elected officials “have mostly not taken place.” Another study, published in Legislative Studies Quarterly in the spring, concluded that voters know how to choose ideologically between Democrats and Republicans, but “appear to know so little about the candidates’ positions that, even if they wanted to, they could not intentionally cast a ballot for…moderate candidates.” In other words, maybe this idea works in the head of a scholar or reformer, but not in real elections.

One outcome of the top two primary in California seems clear, however: it reduces, and even eliminates, voter choice. About one in six state legislative and congressional races have pitted two candidates of the same party against each other. This fall, in addition to the U.S. senate election, 7 California congressional races, 5 state senate races, and 13 state assembly races pit two candidates from the same party against one another. Another reduction in choice comes from the inability of candidates from smaller parties to qualify for the election, leaving candidates from the Green, Libertarian and other independent parties to undertake the expensive process of collecting signatures to qualify for the ballot.

Former president Jimmy Carter once said, “Whatever starts in California unfortunately has an inclination to spread.” With national concern about gridlock and polarization in government, the top two primary could well gain momentum. But it would be wise to look at the unintended (or maybe intended) consequences of reducing voter choice. When Herbert Hoover ran against Franklin Roosevelt for president in 1932, he said, that it was not just a choice between two candidates, but “a contest between two philosophies of government.” Those kinds of choices are disappearing in California with its primary reforms. And after all, isn’t that really the point of elections, to let voters choose?

To view the column at Forbes.com (with hyperlinks to the studies and polls referenced):


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