In 2010, California voters changed the way they select candidates for the state legislature, statewide office and the U.S. Congress, downplaying political parties in favor of a system designed to elect more moderates. Voters in other states are considering similar changes. But the new system might not work the way it was intended to.
Sheila Kuehl ’62 is about as liberal as a California Democrat can be. The first openly gay or lesbian person to serve in the state’s legislature, she is a vocal advocate for progressive causes of all kinds, and as a state senator was California’s leading champion for a single-payer health-care system.
Tom McClintock ’78 is Kuehl’s polar opposite. As a state legislator and now a congressman, he has been about as conservative as any Republican in California. A favorite of the Tea Party, he consistently advocates for smaller government, lower taxes and less regulation of private enterprise.
But the two UCLA alumni agree on one thing: California’s new top-two primary election system is a bad idea. They both say it reduces rather than enhances voters’ choices, muddles the distinctions among candidates and weakens the political parties upon which voters often rely for information about which candidates to support or oppose.
“I don’t think it’s a good thing,” says Kuehl, who earned her J.D. from Harvard in 1978. After careers in acting, law and then the state legislature, Kuehl won a tightly contested seat on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in November. She thinks the partisan system is superior. “I thought the characterization that we had too much extremism was wrong from the get-go. When you elect somebody in a party race, you kind of know what you’re getting.”
McClintock has a similar take. “The whole purpose of party primaries is so Democrats can put their best candidate forward and Republicans can put their best candidate forward and compete with any third parties or independent candidates in the general election,” he says. “This [new open primary system] denies like-minded people the freedom to band together to promote a candidate in the general election.”
The Party Primary’s Over
It is perhaps not surprising that Kuehl and McClintock, who occupy the left and right wings of their respective parties, would not support a system designed to reduce their influence in government. The new system emerged as part of a budget compromise in the legislature in 2009. In order to win the vote of then-state Sen. Abel Maldonado, a moderate Republican, Democrats agreed to place a constitutional amendment on the 2010 ballot that Maldonado and then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger hoped would lead to the election of more centrists like themselves.
The problem, proponents of the new method believed, was that in the old system, each party’s true believers tended to dominate partisan primaries. This encouraged the candidates to campaign to the far left or the far right, and usually rewarded the ones whose views best reflected the parties’ core principles. And in most districts, the candidate from the majority party who won the primary would then easily win the general election, because the registration numbers were usually lopsided. That meant that the eventual winner in most races never had to appeal to the opposition party voters or to the growing number of voters registered to neither major party.
Once those winners got to Sacramento or Washington, they had no incentive to work with the other party, because their own party’s voters would not reward them for doing so and, in some cases, might even punish them for compromising. And the opposition party’s voters were mostly irrelevant.
The new system seeks to navigate around those political realities by doing away with party primaries and allowing voters to choose from all candidates on the primary ballot. The top two finishers, regardless of party, move on to the general election. In theory, this forces all candidates to campaign among all the voters and gives politicians with crossover appeal a better chance of winning.
Shaking It Up
The system has been in place for legislative and U.S. congressional elections since 2012 and was used in statewide races for the first time in 2014. It may be too soon to say definitively if the change is having its intended effect, but it is shaking up California politics.
The biggest difference voters probably have seen is the presence of two Democrats or two Republicans as the finalists on the November ballot. In most cases, that’s happening in districts that are heavily weighted toward the party of the finalists.
One of the most notable examples of this trend — in a race watched nationally — was in 2012, when two UCLA alumni, Democratic representatives Howard Berman ’62, LL.B. ’65 and Brad Sherman ’74, ended up in the same district when new district lines were drawn following the 2010 census. Both congressmen chose to run for that seat, representing the San Fernando Valley, and after the primary they emerged as the top two finishers, with Sherman first. Sherman went on to defeat Berman in November. Although both candidates were, arguably, equally liberal, it was Berman more than Sherman who focused on winning Republican votes in the district. But he still lost the race.
The 33rd Congressional District, which includes UCLA and Westwood, has yet to see two members of the same party in the final, but the law has changed the district’s political dynamics. Rep. Henry Waxman ’61, J.D. ’64, who has held the seat for four decades, faced a challenge in 2012 from independent Bill Bloomfield. Bloomfield finished second in the primary, probably by winning the votes of many Republicans; with no Republican on the November ballot, he gave Waxman a scare, with the incumbent winning by a 54-46 margin.
Last year Waxman decided to retire, and a flood of Democrats ran to replace him. Several top Democratic leaders split the vote, and a Republican — Elan Carr — finished first in the primary, with state Sen. Ted Lieu, a Democrat, coming in second to win the other spot on the fall ballot. But the open primary failed to reward the race’s most ardent moderate — Matt Miller, a Democratic author and advocate of third way politics. He finished back in the pack, despite having won the endorsement of the Los Angeles Times. Lieu easily took the seat in November, winning 58.6 percent of the vote.
Still a Muddle in the Middle
Experts seem to agree that the top-two system will not accomplish its sponsors’ goal of electing more moderates because voters, especially in low-profile races, don’t have enough information to distinguish among the candidates.
“It’s too difficult for voters to know what different candidates stand for,” says Daniel Lowenstein, a UCLA law professor and former chairman of the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission. “With the large and diverse population we have in California, a two-party system really does help clarify things.”
UCLA Political Science Professor John Zaller is also skeptical. “While the top-two primary may sometimes lead to the election of a moderate, its more common effect will probably be to confuse voters or to deny them general election choices they would like to have.”
A vivid example of that might be the 31st Congressional District, east of L.A. UCLA doctoral student Angela Ocampo M.A. ’14 has studied the district as part of a national research project Zaller is heading on primary elections for seats in the House of Representatives. Although the 31st District’s electorate leans Democratic, in 2012 several Democrats split the vote in the primary. Republicans finished first and second, and in the general election Rep. Gary Miller won the seat. Miller opted to not seek reelection, and the seat went to Democrat Pete Aguilar in 2014.
“Proponents of the top-two would argue that it was instituted to help elect more moderates, but that really isn’t what happened in the 31st District,” Ocampo says. “You had two Republicans running against each other in the general election in a district that was majority Democrat. In the end you had a congressman who didn’t represent the majority of the district.”
Moderates fell short in two other high-profile races last year. In the Silicon Valley, Democratic congressman Mike Honda faced a challenge from fellow Democrat Ro Khanna, a moderate who won backing from a large segment of the tech community. But Honda prevailed. On the other side of the aisle, two prominent Republicans faced off last November for a seat representing north L.A. County and western Ventura County. Steve Knight, widely seen as the more conservative candidate, won that congressional race against former senator Tony Strickland.
Ocampo has interviewed voters, political organizers and campaign consultants, and she concludes that voters don’t so much look at ideological positioning as they do “party cues, sometimes a single issue, sometimes just the appeal of the candidate.”
Other scholars point out that the new system all but eliminates third parties as players in the general election because their candidates rarely make it past the primary. The system also appears to have led to an increase in campaign spending as interest groups back candidates in districts that used to be slam dunks for one party or the other. And if the system was supposed to engage voters by giving them more choice in the primaries, that hasn’t happened. Turnout in 2014 was at record lows in the primary and general elections.
McClintock, the UCLA grad who represents District 4 in Northern California, got an up-close-and-personal view of the new system last year. Democrats had no hope of winning his heavily Republican district, and it appears that their party leadership cleared the field in this year’s primary to allow moderate Republican Art Moore to finish second to McClintock and move on to challenge the lawmaker in the general election.
But the incumbent says he was never worried. He had the endorsement of the California Republican Party, the county central committees in his district and most major business groups.
“This is not some sort of Republican civil war,” he said before the election. “I think it is an attempt to manipulate the new rules, and I think it’s failing.”
On that last point, McClintock was correct. He won reelection easily, with 60.5 percent of the vote.