For those of us involved in polling and election analysis at PPIC, the just-released California Secretary of State’s (SOS) Statement of the Vote offers a treasure trove of data about how our democracy is working. The latest SOS report also deserves close scrutiny because the top-two primary, which had its debut in June 2012, operated in statewide contests—such as the governor’s race—for the first time this year. My colleagues Eric McGhee and Daniel Krimm have provided an excellent analysis of the outcomes of legislative district races. Here, I’m going to focus on six election trends—regarding statewide offices, state propositions, and voter participation—that surfaced in my read of the final numbers.
- Advantage Incumbents. The big winners in the statewide races were current officeholders: the governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, insurance commissioner, school superintendent, and controller (now running for treasurer). The number two vote-getters trailed these state officials by wide margins in each race, even while PPIC’s polling indicates that half of likely voters say the state is headed in the wrong direction. These primary results underscore the uphill battle faced by political newcomers in statewide elections. This is best exemplified by first-time GOP candidate Neel Kashkari, who received just 839,767 votes or 19% of the vote—even after spending millions of his own dollars on his gubernatorial campaign. The six Democratic incumbents start out with huge numerical advantages in their statewide races in November.
- Major Parties Rule. The top-two primary winners in the eight statewide races are all major party members. The November ballot includes seven statewide races in which Democratic and Republican candidates face off. Only the nonpartisan school superintendent’s race has a Democrat facing a Democrat. The candidates from minor parties—which used to have their own primaries—clearly have a harder time prevailing under top-two primary rules. But the statewide candidates with no party preference—also known as independents—were also shut out, even though they are members of a large voting bloc. The absence of minor party and no party preference candidates could result in a depressed voter turnout in November. In California, 28% of voters belong to a minor party or have declared as no party preference, and PPIC polling indicates that many likely voters have unfavorable views about the Democratic and Republican parties.
- Legislature Wins Big. Two measures placed on the ballot by the legislature passed easily: State Proposition 41 (Veterans Housing and Homeless Bond Act), with 65 percent of the vote, and State Proposition 42 (Public Records, Open Meetings, Reimbursements), with 62 percent. These two measures attracted little discussion or media interest. Their success in June is consistent with the high pass rate for legislative ballot measures over time. Still, many likely voters say they disapprove of the legislature, making the easy passage of these measures rather surprising. At the same time, this trend bodes well for the legislature’s propositions on the November ballot, such as a rainy day fund proposal and a possible state water bond.
- Knowledge Gaps Loom Large. State Senator Leland Yee, who was embroiled in a political scandal, accused of committing felony crimes, and withdrew his name as a candidate, still placed third in the secretary of state’s race. In fact, he received 380,361 votes or 9% of the vote. His surprising showing raises fundamental questions about the level of voter knowledge and the effectiveness of both the state’s media and the official voter guides in providing election information.
- Voters Are Disengaged. The primary turnout this June fell to an all-time low of 25% for registered voters and 18% for eligible adults. Even more troubling: turnout among registered voters in Los Angeles (17%), San Bernardino (19%), Riverside (22%), and Orange (24%) Counties was even lower than the statewide average. Since the top-two candidates are chosen in the primary, low primary turnouts may undermine the legitimacy of November elections over time. Moreover, these numbers raise a larger question: Are low turnouts in four populous Southern California counties symptomatic of a deeper civic malaise?
- Results Are Slow. A record 69.4% of primary voters mailed in their ballots this year. While this method is growing in popularity, we are learning that it results in a slow vote count that leaves the outcome of tight races in limbo for weeks. This year, the controller’s race was one of the closest in state history, with a 481-vote margin of victory, and the top-two winners were not known until the last day of June. In the future, we could be waiting for weeks to learn the winner in a tight governor’s race, or California’s outdated voting system could be exposed in a close presidential election. The 58 county registrars will need prodding and assistance by the SOS office to apply modern technology to speed up their vote-by-mail counts. Moreover, given the popularity of voting by mail, we should be looking for ways to make it easier for voters to do so—in part to increase voter participation.
Every election occurs in a unique political context. The 2014 primary results could be an anomaly rather than indicative of some flaws with the top-two primary system. The 2016 presidential year and the 2018 gubernatorial year may feature competitive statewide primary races that lead to different outcomes. Still, the six issues that surfaced in this primary also reflect longer-term trends that are worthy of serious consideration.
PPIC has invited California’s two secretary of state candidates to participate in a conversation with me about the future of California’s elections on September 11 in Sacramento. Stay tuned for more information about how you can attend or watch this PPIC event.