The recent Institute of Governmental Studies post-election seminar in which I was a panelist produced a few news stories and a mountain of academic papers about the recent electoral reforms enacted by voters—open primary, redistricting reform and term limits.
I’ve read the stories and the academic works and want to add a practical perspective on the open primary based on this practitioner’s work for the California Chamber of Commerce, which was the subject of one of the studies, California’s Top Two Primary and the Business Agenda by Eric McGhee from the Public Policy Institute of California.
Early Results Encouraging
First, it is still too early to say categorically whether these reforms have lived up to their promise by leading to the election of more moderates to the legislature. But I will say we are encouraged by the early results.
For the CalChamber Board of Directors, I reviewed our legislative scorecard comparing Assembly votes in the years 2011 and 2013. I focused on the performance of the Assembly for an important reason: voters had just elected a 42-member freshman class and I wanted to stay away from votes cast in an election year. I looked specifically at the CalChamber scorecard rankings of Democratic members and defined a “moderate” as someone who voted with us at least 40% of the time.
What we found is compelling. In 2011, four Democratic members of the Assembly made it to the 40% level, but in 2013, 19 members achieved that benchmark, a fivefold increase. I am proud to say many of the 40% were members who were backed by the business community. In the election year when pressure on Democratic members may be a bit more intense, we still held our own by having 15 majority party members rank at the 40% level or better.
Turning to politics, a subject that I know more about, the practical application of this new system merits a closer real-world view of how legislative candidates are elected. The academics focus on primary results and give short shrift to the November outcomes.
I realize we call it the top-two primary, but that is an oversimplification of the system. What we have actually is a system that could be a new reality show called “campaign survivor,” where only the strongest and most capable candidate, regardless of party, remains on the island after all contestants have been vanquished.
Competition is good for business and consumers, and it is good for candidates and voters because through both a primary and general election, candidates are forced to appeal to the broader electorate in the higher turnout November contest.
CalChamber and our business community allies positively affected the outcome in several November runoffs where both candidates were Democrats. In these intraparty contests, business groups and individuals were able to independently help candidates achieve victory by appealing to a large cross section of voters, including and especially, Republicans and those who express no party preference.
Two such races where the November contestants were both Democrats provide an example of how voters do benefit from the system. In Senate District 26 in Los Angeles County and Assembly District 9 in Sacramento County, Democrats Ben Allen (Santa Monica) and Jim Cooper (Elk Grove) were, respectively, the November victors. They won because the candidates plus third-party business groups and individuals were able to adequately communicate with Republican voters about where these candidates stood on core issues like taxes.
The difference in turnout between June and November was significant: In Senate District 26, voter participation jumped from 30% in June to 43% in November; in Assembly District 9, turnout went from 27% to 42%. Increased voter participation across the political spectrum, as in these districts, will give the legislators more freedom to vote the interest of their districts.
Now that I have pulled back the curtain, I will repeat the point: Democrats are being elected to the legislature due to their ability to move across party lines and appeal to Republican voters, and that makes these candidates the moderate ones in the race. Once candidates are in office, it is our job to ensure their legislative record is consistent with their campaign promises by tracking them and reporting out their votes through CalChamber’s scorecard.
In its simplest terms, these reforms are showing promise and are being refined every two years. Our system is more open and transparent because now every voter has a voice and every vote counts. I guess you could say that I have just made a molehill out of that academic mountain.
Martin R. Wilson is executive vice president, public affairs, for the California Chamber of Commerce.