Commentary

08/12/2015  by Ed Coghlan

California lawmakers reflect on effects of top-two primary at upcoming summit


(Photo Credit: Josh Thompson/Flickr)

The subject of California’s top-two primary is expected to draw up to 200 people on August 19 in Sacramento. That’s when the Independent Voter Project and California Forward are sponsoring a daylong discussion of the electoral reform, which is now five years old.

"The goal was to elect candidates who would be reasonable, pragmatic and open minded," said former Lt. Governor Abel Maldonado at a California Forward discussion in Los Angeles this week. Maldonado, as a State Senator helped break a budget deadlock in 2009 by getting the Legislature to agree to placing the top two proposal on the ballot.

California voters passed Prop 14 in 2010 which gave every voter the right to vote for all candidates in primary elections, which gave politicians motivation to appeal to a broader range of voters in their districts.

Depending on who you talk to, it is a political reform that either has helped elect more moderate candidates to the Legislature, partly causing the body to be less overtly partisan and more productive or, as critics would tell you, it has not resulted in the election of more moderate politicians in states where a similar system is in use and has actually dampened voter turnout as well as hurting California's minor and independent political parties.

Under the reform, in districts that are either heavily Democratic or heavily Republican, often the top-two primary results in two candidates of the same party running against each other in the general election.

One of those is Assemblymember Cheryl Brown from the Inland Empire who in 2012 knocked off fellow Democrat Joe Baca Jr., a product of a well-known political family, in the general election after coming in second to Baca in the primary. Not surprisingly, she is a fan of the top-two primary.

"I support California’s open primary system because it requires candidates to build broad local coalitions," Brown told CA Fwd. "I finished second in the primary in my first election so it helped me. It gave our campaign a great opportunity to build a diverse coalition of local stakeholders."

Critics of the reform would like to see it overturned. In an op-ed last year in the L.A. Times, Harold Meyerson, editor at large of the American Prospect, said top two is an "idea that can lead to perverse and anti-majoritarian consequences."

However, the Times editorial board opined earlier this year it’s too early to assess the impact and that the real point of this reform "was to loosen the stranglehold the entrenched political establishment had over campaigning, elections and lawmaking".

For proponents of the reform, it’s not too early to say it's working.

"When CA Fwd and others supported the top-two primary it was because it gave every voter the right to vote for all candidates in primary elections, giving politicians an incentive to appeal to all the voters in their district," said Lenny Mendonca, CA Fwd co-chair. "The evidence is that it is working and is helping improve governance in California."

In 2015, Democrat Steve Glazer won his State Senate seat in a very expensive special election versus liberal Democrat Susan Bonilla. Glazer attracted crossover independent and Republican voters and won rather easily.

Glazer served as Orinda’s mayor and represents a swath of the East Bay of the San Francisco Bay Area. The centrist Glazer might not have survived a traditional Democratic primary.

"The top two is all about giving freedom to centrist political voices that have been shut out by narrow but powerful voices in both major political parties," Glazer said. "The open primary lets freedom ring for the voiceless voters in the center."

Both Assemblymember Brown and Senator Glazer will participate at the August 19 event in Sacramento.

"The political extremes hate the political center," Glazer said. "They would rather battle a more radical opponent in their death spiral for representative government than engage constructively with a moderate."

Brown, who is in her second term in the Assembly, added the reform is having a positive effect after the election as well.

"I think it has brought more moderate legislators to Sacramento who have offered new ideas to their respective parties," said Brown.

At the August 19 summit on top two, panelists will participate in series of discussions on voting rights, the top-two primary and the future of elections. If you'd like to attend, here's the agenda and signup form.

Categories: Democracy, Civic Engagement, Elections, Proposition 14, Top Two Primary, Government, Accountability, Civic Engagement, Elections, Proposition 14

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