Imagine what a California legislature would look like if the general election actually mattered. Would there be less deadlock? Would the extremes of each party rule or would power accrue to the center? Given the dysfunction in Sacramento today, it’s an interesting potential tomorrow. And thanks to the United States Supreme Court, it could actually happen.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court voted to uphold Washington State’s “Top Two” primary structure. This system allows voters to vote for any candidate on the primary ballot, regardless of the party affiliation of the voter or the candidate. The two candidates with the most votes compete in the general election — even if they’re both members of the same party. The seattlepi web site has a thorough history of how Washington came to adopt this approach.
California’s currently has what’s called a “closed primary.” Voters cast ballots based on their party affiliation. Those candidates finishing first in their primary advance to the general election. Because of legitimate communities of interest and a substantial dose of political gerrymandering, the primary results usually decides the eventual winner. Districts are either heavily Democratic or heavily Republican.
With primaries being the center of the political universe, partisans gain the upper hand. Candidates don’t need to appeal to the broader electorate, but they desperately need to court their parties’ core constituents. This tends to result in Democrats being more liberal and Republicans more conservative than might otherwise be the case. Moderates in Sacramento are few and far between.
The result is a state government that at best works poorly and at worst doesn’t work at all. As Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters points out, “The state’s ongoing budget crisis and lack of progress on issues such as water and education reform attest to the dysfunction – and to the disgust and alienation that Californians increasingly express toward politics.”
Partisan politics wouldn’t go away if California were to take this route. The Washington State approach, which is a “blanket primary” with “Top Two” result, still allows the parties to recommend candidates to the voters. It just prevents them from controlling what candidates are on the November ballot.
This doesn’t mean liberals and conservatives would never be elected, but it does mean more moderates would make it to Sacramento. Because in many districts, the Republican who could best appeal to independents and Democrats and the Democrat who could best appeal to independents and Republicans would have the best odds of winning the general election. This shift, along with, as Mr. Walters notes, “thoughtful reform of redistricting, and perhaps term limits, could restore some of the Legislature’s legitimacy and relevance.”
The Top Two system might be a boon for statewide offices, as well, for the same reasons it would benefit the legislature. Instead of politicans jockeying for partisan advantage, we might have state officials focused on solving problems. And that requires compromise, something a more moderate environment in Sacramento would facilitate.
The Legislature, however, is unlikely to change the current election system. Lawmakers won under the current rules and have little motivation to reform a game they’ve mastered. Change would require a ballot initiative. Fortunately, it’s likely the Supreme Court decision has sparked ideas among moderates in both parties. After all, championing an issue like this would be very appealing to centrist candidates. It would increase their chances of getting through to the general election, appeal to independents and crossover voters, and would certainly increase a sponsor’s visibility.
So here’s an interesting scenario: Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner (a Republican) and former Controller Steve Westly (a Democrat) both want to be elected Governor in 2010. Both are moderates, which puts them at a disadvantage under today’s system, but would be a strength under a blanket primary system. Better still, both made fortunes in the Silicon Valley and have proven their willingness to invest large amounts in campaigns. Imagine the impact of them coming together to qualify and pass a Top Two ballot initiative. Who knows, California might not get a functional legislature and the chance to choose between Commissioner Poizner and Controller Westley for governor.
It could happen.