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Three Lessons About California’s Election Reforms

Daniel Krimm, Eric McGhee November 5, 2014

California got its second taste of two important reforms yesterday: legislative and congressional districts drawn by an independent redistricting commission, and a “top-two” primary system that allowed voters to choose any candidate in the primary, regardless of party, and advanced the top two vote-getters, also regardless of party, to the fall election. Both went into effect in 2012.

How did the reforms do this time around? This is really a question about the legislative and congressional races, since the statewide races weren’t affected by the redistricting and there were no same-party races at that level. The new districts were used for the first time only in the state senate races.

A first pass at the results (as they stand at the time of this writing) suggests three important conclusions:

  1. Competition was higher. Races were more competitive this year than before the reforms, though they were a little less competitive than in 2012. Among races between candidates of opposing parties, 15% had a margin of victory of less than 10 points, compared to 18% in 2012 and just 7% in the decade before. There were 25 same-party races (compared with 28 in 2012), almost exclusively in districts that would have been uncompetitive under the old primary system. (The only possible exception was Congressional District 25 just north of Los Angeles, where two Republicans faced off against each other in a district that might have been competitive for a Democrat under the right circumstances). Roughly one-quarter of those same-party races were decided by less than 10 points, down slightly from 2012.
  2. The establishment did pretty well. Despite the extra competition, most races turned out as they might have before the reforms. In other words, incumbents and candidates endorsed by their party fared well. All but seven of the 114 incumbents across state assembly, state senate, and U.S. House races won reelection, although fewer incumbents ran in the senate’s new districts (50%) compared to the assembly (70%) or Congress (89%). One incumbent in a same-party race is losing this cycle (Raul Bocanegra in Assembly District 39), compared to six who lost in 2012 (two of whom were running against another incumbent). The average margin of victory for incumbents (33%) was about the same as in 2012 (33%) and in the decade before (31%). In the same-party races where only one candidate was endorsed by the party, that candidate won 15 out of 18 times, compared to 12 of 16 in 2012.
  3. Minor parties continued to struggle. One criticism of the top-two system is that minor-party and no-party-preference candidates find it more difficult to survive the first-round election to reach the fall runoff. This year, only seven such candidates managed it, four of them by running write-in campaigns in races where there was otherwise no formal major-party opposition. None of these candidates was elected on Tuesday (though such candidates rarely won before the reforms, either).

It will likely take more time for the impact of redistricting and election reforms to be clear, but for the time being, the results are falling into some predictable patterns. As voters, candidates, and campaign consultants wrap their heads around the idea of the top two, we may see further evolution of this system. But for now, the reforms have transformed certain aspects of California elections—such as increasing the number of competitive races and allowing same party runoffs in the fall—while leaving the broader landscape unchanged.

News and analysis of California policy issues from PPIC

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