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California Electoral Reform a Work in Progress

By Eric McGhee, policy fellow, and Daniel Krimm, policy associate, Public Policy Institute of California

This commentary appeared in the
San Francisco Chronicle on June 24, 2012


When Californians voted in the recent primary election, they took their first steps into a brave new world of electoral reform.

They cast ballots in state legislative and congressional districts drawn by an independent commission of average citizens, rather than by the Legislature.

And they voted for any candidate they wanted, regardless of party, rather than only for candidates of one party or the other. The top two vote-getters, regardless of party, will now participate in the fall campaign, which means candidates of the same party will run against each other in some places.

In the staid world of election law, this is as radical as it gets.

The reforms were meant to breathe new life into California democracy: to engage voters, and to encourage elected officials to tackle state and national problems more aggressively.

So how did they do? There were some notable successes. Elections were much more competitive: There were more open seats than usual, the incumbents who ran were more likely to face competition from within their own party, and the races were closer. The redistricting commission, for all its inexperience, also presided over one of the smoothest and most conflict-free redistricting cycles California has seen in 50 years.

There were failures, too. If the reforms were meant to rein in the political establishment, they have fallen short so far. Every incumbent who ran advanced to the fall campaign, and all but four came in first. Likewise, there were 113 nonincumbent candidates endorsed by one of the major parties, and 101 of them advanced to the fall.

The voters were also a disappointment. Supporters of reform had hoped that greater competition and choice would bring more voters to the polls, but turnout was low for a presidential primary. That said, the "top two" primary did make it much easier for independents who showed up at the polls to cast a vote in congressional and legislative contests, and it appears they took advantage of the opportunity.

More voters picked candidates in those down-ballot races than made a choice in the presidential contest, where the old primary system continues to be used.

There is at least one aspect of the reforms where a verdict is clearly premature. Many hoped the reforms would elect more moderate, "problem-solving" candidates, and the media had identified a number of viable candidates like this before the election. These candidates had mixed success: Some advanced to the fall, and others did not.

But frankly, we do not know whether these moderates - or even the supposedly partisan candidates they ran against - will actually govern as expected if they win. In most cases, we have little to go on but the language of their campaigns. This uncertainty is especially pronounced when the comparison is between two candidates of the same party, where the ideological distinctions probably will be quite fine.

The impact of the reforms will continue to play out as we approach the November election. The "top two" primary has extended several intra-party factional battles to the fall election, like the high-profile fight between Democratic Reps. Howard Berman and Brad Sherman in the San Fernando Valley. Yet in most seats, these fights are over, and attention now turns to the struggle between the two major parties.

In the Legislature, Democrats need two additional seats in each chamber to reach a two-thirds majority - which would allow them to pass tax increases without Republican votes - and the redistricting has made that outcome more likely, though by no means guaranteed. It has also left many incumbents in uncomfortable territory where their name recognition might be less valuable.

In recent years, the primary electorate has been somewhat more Republican than the one in the general election. If that trend holds in the fall, the dynamics of some races probably will change. Some seats that looked out of range for the Democrats based on the primary result probably will be more competitive.

Regardless of the outcome, the fall campaign will continue California's grand experiment in election reform. The stakes are high, and the whole country is watching.

Related Publication

California's New Electoral Reforms: How Did They Work?

Related Policy Areas

Fiscal/Governance Reform
Political Landscape

Other Work By

Eric McGhee