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



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.
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.
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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: