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Press Release · September 12, 2012

California Electoral Reforms Shake Up Status Quo—But Have Yet to Change It

SAN FRANCISCO, September 12, 2012—The debut of two California electoral reforms resulted in more open seats and more competition in races for the state legislature and Congress. But with most candidates endorsed by the major parties and all incumbents advancing to the fall election, the reforms have yet to significantly shift the status quo, according to a study released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).

The study looks at the impact of the reforms that took effect this year. In the first reform, the state used new legislative and congressional districts drawn by an independent citizens’ commission, rather than by the state legislature. The second reform, a “top-two” primary system, allows voters to cast ballots for any legislative or congressional candidate, regardless of party. The top two candidates—again regardless of party—face off in the November general election.

Every incumbent advanced to the fall election, as did virtually every non-incumbent candidate endorsed by a major party—101 out of 113. The study also points out that—contrary to predictions of both supporters and opponents of reform—the flow of campaign money for the primary did not increase dramatically in races for the state Senate and Assembly, though there was a notable increase in races for the U.S. House. And money flowed disproportionately to establishment candidates.

“The primary results were broadly in line with what might have been expected under the old system,” says Eric McGhee, PPIC policy fellow and co-author of the report with Daniel Krimm, PPIC policy associate. “So far, the first step on the road of electoral reform has been a small one. Time will tell whether the reforms will produce bigger changes.”

The study, Test-driving California’s Election Reforms, finds that the reforms produced five changes:

  • Redistricting helped move many incumbents out of their comfort zones, leading to a large number of open seats: 35 out of 80 available in the state Assembly, 9 out of 20 in the state Senate, and 9 out of 53 in Congress. The average incumbent ran for a seat where 45 percent of constituents lived in territory that was not part of the incumbent’s old district.
  • Redistricting helped increase the number of seats likely to be competitive between the two major parties in the fall election—but the tendency for Republicans and Democrats to live in different parts of California prevented bigger changes. In the Assembly, 10 seats are competitive in terms of party registration statistics, compared to 9 in 2010. In the state Senate there are 6—there were none in 2010. There are 10 in the House of Representatives, compared to 4 in 2010.
  • Incumbents in uncompetitive seats were much more likely to face an intra-party challenge because of the top-two primary. These challenges helped produce closer outcomes. This year, 42 percent of incumbents faced a challenge from a candidate in their own party, compared to an average of 19 percent from 2002-2010. And winning incumbents led their top opponents—whether from the same party or not—by a much smaller margin than in previous primaries.
  • As a result of the top-two primary, there are 28 fall contests between candidates of the same party: 18 for the Assembly, 2 for the state Senate, and 8 for the House. All but one—Congressional District 31, near San Bernardino—likely would not have been competitive in the fall otherwise.
  • The top-two primary produced another significant change: Minor parties are nearly absent from the fall ballot. Only three races feature such candidates, and in each, the minor party candidate was a write-in against an otherwise uncontested incumbent. Five races feature an independent or “no party preference” candidate.

The report was supported with funding from the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation.


PPIC is dedicated to informing and improving public policy in California through independent, objective, nonpartisan research on major economic, social, and political issues. The institute was established in 1994 with an endowment from William R. Hewlett. As a private operating foundation, PPIC does not take or support positions on any ballot measure or on any local, state, or federal legislation, nor does it endorse, support, or oppose any political parties or candidates for public office.