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Primary Takeaways: Democracy Is Alive and Well in California

Mark Baldassare July 14, 2018
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With the release of the official Statement of the Vote, the final tally is in for the 2018 California primary. The election outcomes are encouraging news for California’s democracy—especially in light of criticisms of the top-two primary system by the national media. Several important statewide trends stand out:

  • Strong political participation. A record-setting 19 million Californians—75.7% of eligible adults—were registered to vote in the gubernatorial primary. This threshold has not been reached since the middle of the 20th century. Moreover, the 7.14 million voters who cast ballots is an all-time high for a gubernatorial primary and, at 37.5% of registered voters and 28.4% of eligible adults, the turnout rates are the highest reported in the five gubernatorial primaries since 2000. Since his election four years ago, California Secretary of State Alex Padilla has been on a mission to make it easier for Californians to register to vote and cast ballots, and the efforts seem to be working. The May PPIC survey found that likely voters’ attention to election news was relatively high, so credit also goes to the media for stoking interest in political participation.

  • More independent voters. Many Californians are responding to the hyper-partisanship of national politics by eschewing the major parties and registering as independents (also known as NPP for “No Party Preference”). In June’s election, for the first time in the state’s history, NPP voters outnumbered Republican voters (25.5% to 25.1%). In the past four years, the number of NPP voters increased (+1,103,602) more than the number of Democratic voters (+745,598), while Republican ranks shrunk (-267,311). The makeup of the June ballot reflected the political clout of NPP voters. Four of the statewide races included NPP candidates, giving voters some nonpartisan choices they did not have under the previous primary system. And in a first for the general election, the top two candidates for insurance commissioner are a Democrat and an NPP candidate (formerly a member of the Republican Party).
  • Diverse statewide candidates. After much consternation about the likelihood of a single-party race at the top of the ticket, five of the eight partisan races—including the governor’s—feature a Democrat running against a Republican. Except for the governor’s race, the top-two primary results offer a diverse pool of candidates to choose from in the fall, at least among Democratic options. The US Senate election and the seven down-ticket races include five Latinos, four women, two Asian Americans, and one African American. Also, eight of the nine statewide races—including the governor’s—are contests between Northern and Southern Californians. While many Republicans are likely to skip voting in a US Senate race with two Democratic candidates, as they did in November 2016, a Democratic-only race for the open lieutenant governor seat will be closely watched for signs of cross-party voting.
  • Popular state ballot measures. Four of the five state propositions placed on the June primary ballot by the legislature passed. This is consistent with the historically high pass rate for legislative ballot measures. With the legislature’s approval holding steady and at a relatively high level in the May PPIC survey, the four state propositions each passed by healthy margins—including a 58% “yes” vote for the state water and parks bond. The latter results bode well for the state housing bonds passed by the legislature and placed on the November ballot. (Citizens’ initiatives appear only on the November general ballot.)

The main takeaway from the June primary is that the vital signs of California’s democracy are healthy. In the wake of California’s many election reforms, records may be shattered in the numbers of registered voters and ballots cast this fall—and throughout the 2020s. The top-two primary system may have its quirks, but it is well suited for the burgeoning number of NPP voters. NPP candidates have found a home in the top-two primary, an NPP will be on the fall ballot, and there will likely be NPP statewide officeholders in the future. The fears about major party voters feeling left out of the fall election were overblown, and most top two candidates reflect the state’s diversity. Positive responses to the June ballot measures suggest an easy time for the state propositions from the legislature this fall; the fate of the nine citizens’ initiatives—including a repeal of the recent gas tax increase—is currently less clear.

At PPIC, the race for governor, US senator, and superintendent of public instruction stand out as uniquely worthy of public attention. We have invited the two candidates in each race to participate in conversations with me about the future of California. Stay tuned for more information about these public events. Meanwhile, throughout the fall the PPIC Statewide Survey will focus on the governor’s race, the US Senate election, and the congressional races—as well as the gas tax repeal and other state propositions that impact our future. We look forward to informing discussions and raising awareness about the importance of this consequential election for the state and nation.

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