The Wrong Way to Fix California

June 15 (Bloomberg) -- California desperately needs courageous leaders with innovative ideas. Unfortunately, the new “top two” primary system, which went into effect for the June 5 election, is a step toward rewarding careerist politicians who tout the same old status-quo solutions.

In 2010, California voters approved Proposition 14, which installed a primary system similar to those that exist in two states: Washington and Louisiana. Previously, voters elected primary candidates from their own party, and the winner would face off against the other parties’ candidates in the general election in November. Under the new system, candidates from all parties compete against one another in the primary. The top two vote-getters fight it out in the general election, regardless of their party affiliation.

The brainchild of then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, the initiative was the result of a legislative deal that still enrages conservatives. Abel Maldonado, a state senator and moderate Republican, agreed to vote for a Democratic tax-increasing budget in the Legislature provided the Democratic majority voted to put the measure on the ballot.

The June 5 vote was the first election after the state completed changes in its redistricting process, another project of Schwarzenegger’s. When the usual slate of partisan candidates won, supporters of the new system said the results proved the political dynamic wouldn’t change that much. But this primary was a low-turnout election, in which partisan voters made up a larger share of people heading to the polls. The moderate voters the reform is targeting are more likely to be a presence in November.

Conservatives Weakened

In the general election, 21 state legislative races will feature members of the same party. That is a significant number. It points to long-term changes that will be the opposite of what the initiative’s backers promised -- more choice, fewer special interests -- but exactly what many of them wanted the new system to do: Break the resistance of Republicans in the Legislature on tax increases.

All of the so-called reforms -- open primaries, a constitutional convention, redistricting, simple-majority budgets -- pushed recently by moderate political activists will probably achieve that dubious result.

“The financial backers of it included the big corporate interests who wanted to reduce the number of doctrinaire liberals and doctrinaire conservatives, hoping to be able to come up with an environment in Sacramento where they could cut more deals,” Jon Fleischman, a former California Republican Party vice chairman, said in an interview, referring to the top-two system.

Proposition 14 passed by a solid 54 percent of the electorate. Its supporters told the voters that it would end California’s notorious partisanship. Moderates, we were told, would be more likely to work for the public good than politicians on the right or left.

Responding to that argument, Richard Winger, the editor of Ballot Access News, makes an important point: “It’s illegitimate to design a system to elect a particular kind of person.”

Even if that were a legitimate goal, there’s no evidence that California’s moderates in either party have been fountains of innovative thinking.

Proposals for pension reform, for instance, come mainly from conservatives, with a few progressive Democrats thrown into the mix. California moderates from both parties tend to be most closely aligned with the public-sector unions, especially police, firefighters and prison guards. Special interests have more influence with the middle-of-the-road candidates because these politicians rarely have a core philosophy governing their decisions.

Centrists’ Mistakes

Moderates have had their shot in recent years. Former Governor Gray Davis was touted as a new breed of Democratic centrist. His term ended in a recall amid deficits and rolling electricity blackouts. Schwarzenegger swung wildly from right to left, ultimately leaving the state in a fiscal mess not much different from when he took office.

Why would we design a system to elect more moderates?

The idea fails for other reasons as well. It claims to reduce the influence of money in the election process, but it is doing the opposite. Instead of having to raise money for a lower-cost party primary and then for the general election, candidates now must run in what amounts to two general elections. It’s too early to draw conclusions about spending given that the general-election cycle has just started, but the Sacramento Bee reported, “Campaign spending by independent groups to affect legislative races has soared -- from more than $7 million in the 2010 primary to more than $12 million this year, state records show.”

As the political scientist John J. Pitney Jr. wrote in City Journal California, “Bigger electorates result in costlier campaigns, which in turn require candidates to ask special interests for even more money.” Fleischman argues that candidates are more dependent than ever on the coffers of unions and other special interests because of the increased costs of running for office under the new system.

Instead of increasing voter choice, the top-two system decreases it. Third parties are now effectively cut out of the general-election cycle, when voters are paying the most attention. The chairman of the Libertarian Party of California, Kevin Takenaga, told me the new system is making it harder for him to recruit candidates and raise money. It’s the same for other small parties.

With fewer differences between candidates, fewer voters may head to the polls. On June 5, turnout was near a record low. It’s too early to conclude why, but it is a troubling sign. Even the customary means for casting a protest vote -- the write-in - - has been eliminated, leaving disaffected Californians no choice but to stay at home on Election Day to register their dismay at having to choose between Tweedledee and Tweedledum.

More Initiatives

California’s Legislature is mocked for its wacky positions and failure to institute reforms, but a governing body stripped of its conservative voice -- and that will be the lasting effect of this change -- will leave reformers with even more incentive to turn to the initiative process. Democratic moderates already vote in lockstep with party leaders on taxes and union issues. The target of this change is Republicans, and the result will be more of them like Schwarzenegger and Maldonado.

When two Republicans face off in the general election, these are now typically in safe Republican seats. In the old system, a conservative would almost surely win the closed primary, then take on token Democratic opposition in November. Under the new system, the Republican vote will be split in the general election (inattentive voters can’t just vote party line, after all), and non-Republican voters will probably tilt the field to the more moderate candidate.

Unlike Louisiana and Washington, California needs only to shift in a handful of legislative districts to give the state’s Democrats the two-thirds majority they need to push for tax increases without Republican help. We already see how Republicans are being cut out of the state-budget process, with a deadline looming this week. That is because of passage of another change pushed by moderates: the simple-majority budget. Once Democrats have that tax supermajority vote, they will turn to their tax-raising solutions early and often.

Republican officials already see an increased reluctance by their candidates to sign the no-new-tax pledge, which has proved an effective tool to keep weak-kneed party members from giving in to pressure.

If California ever hopes to emerge from its continuing crisis, it needs livelier debate and tougher battles against vested interests. It doesn’t need more malleable politicians with few envelope-pushing ideas and no spine when it comes to challenging the public-sector unions and other special interests that got us into trouble in the first place.

(Steven Greenhut is vice president of journalism at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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