Politics, government and public life for Southern California

California's political reforms are no game-changer in 2012 election

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The same-party general election between Democratic Congressmen Howard Berman, left, and Brad Sherman is a result of voter-approved political reforms that are having little impact in 2012, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.

Californians voted in 2008 to create a citizens commission to redraw electoral districts, which also resulted in a system where the top-two finishers in the primary would advance to the general election — even if they are from the same party.

The idea was to shake thing up by creating more competitive races, and opening contests to more diverse and moderate candidates.

But the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) says the reforms that took effect this year haven’t created anything close to a new political landscape. It’s more like someone just rearranged the furniture.

"The primary results were broadly in line with what might have been expected under the old system," says Eric McGhee, a PPIC policy fellow who co-authored a report released Wednesday. "So far, the first step on the road of electoral reform has been a small one.”

The PPIC study found that newly-drawn Congressional and state legislative districts created more open and competitive seats. The top-two primary system did create numerous same-party candidate face-offs (most prominently between L.A. Democratic Congressmen Howard Berman and Brad Sherman), and forced incumbents "out of their comfort zones" by making them campaign in districts where 45% of voters are new constituents.

Nevertheless, all incumbents advanced to the fall election and virtually all non-incumbents backed by major parties — 101 out of 113 — also made the ticket. Just as independent party advocates feared, almost none of their candidates advanced to the November ballot.

One prediction that didn’t totally pan out was that the top-two primary would force campaigns to spend a lot of money up front to make sure their candidates advanced to the fall contest. That didn’t happen in state Assembly and Senate races, but the flow of dollars did increase for established candidates running for the House of Representatives.

Here's are the PPIC's five main findings:

  • Redistricting helped move many incumbents out of their comfort zones, leading to a large number of open seats: 35 out of 80 available in the state Assembly, 9 out of 20 in the state Senate, and 9 out of 53 in Congress. The average incumbent ran for a seat where 45 percent of constituents lived in territory that was not part of the incumbent's old district.
  • Redistricting helped increase the number of seats likely to be competitive between the two major parties in the fall election — but the tendency for Republicans and Democrats to live in different parts of California prevented bigger changes. In the Assembly, 10 seats are competitive in terms of party registration statistics, compared to 9 in 2010. In the state Senate there are 6 — there were none in 2010. There are 10 in the House of Representatives, compared to 4 in 2010. 
  • Incumbents in uncompetitive seats were much more likely to face an intra-party challenge because of the top-two primary. These challenges helped produce closer outcomes. This year, 42 percent of incumbents faced a challenge from a candidate in their own party, compared to an average of 19 percent from 2002-2010. And winning incumbents led their top opponents — whether from the same party or not — by a much smaller margin than in previous primaries.
  • As a result of the top-two primary, there are 28 fall contests between candidates of the same party: 18 for the Assembly, 2 for the state Senate, and 8 for the House. All but one — Congressional District 31, near San Bernardino — likely would not have been competitive in the fall otherwise.
  • The top-two primary produced another significant change: Minor parties are nearly absent from the fall ballot. Only three races feature such candidates, and in each, the minor party candidate was a write-in against an otherwise uncontested incumbent. Five races feature an independent or "no party preference" candidate."

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