Constituent policy

Electoral Reforms in California at the Dawn of a New Decade

The Secretary of State has certified the results of the June 2022 primary. This primary marks the tenth anniversary of two significant California electoral reforms. The first is the Citizens Redistricting Commission (CRC), an independent panel of ordinary citizens that redraws California’s representative districts after each decennial census. The second is the Top Two, an unusual form of open primary that allows voters to choose a candidate from any party for each position, the two candidates who receive the most votes, regardless of party, advance to the elections. of autumn. Both reforms were sold, in part, as ways to weaken party and incumbent power and make elections more competitive.

In a companion piece, Mark Baldassare reviews statewide races and overall turnout for the June 2022 primary. Here, the focus is on these two groundbreaking reforms. The 2022 election marks the first time in 10 years that the two reforms have had an impact together. What can the results of the primaries tell us about this impact?

In a traditional primary, voters must first choose a party and then select a candidate with that party affiliation. The Top Two breaks these constraints and allows voters to choose any candidate. In the first three elections under the Top Two, the primary votes for each party’s candidates deviated further from the district presidential vote than they had under the previous system – exactly what one would expect from voters exploring their newfound freedom to vote for outside candidates. their own party.

But the continued polarization of American politics has made that shift difficult to sustain. The gap narrowed in 2018 and 2020, and in 2022 it was even smaller than before the Top Two (see figure below). Despite more choices, voters are now staying within their party corridors.

Moreover, the incumbents continue to do well. All incumbents who showed up in June finished in the top two. All but six obtained a plurality of votes and 8 out of 10 won an absolute majority. The average first-place incumbent beat the second-place contender by 31 points, compared to an 11-point margin for non-incumbent winners.

The Top Two produced some changes. Twenty-eight races this fall will feature two candidates from the same party, the highest number since 2012. These races are largely held in districts where one party dominates, and they account for nearly half of the races without incumbents. Each race offers an opportunity for an unconventional candidate to win by forming a new coalition. Sometimes an otherwise safe holder can lose.

For most incumbents who struggled in the June election, however, redistricting was a bigger factor than the first two. Three of the six incumbents who came in second were running behind another incumbent vying for the same seat thanks to the redistricting. Incumbents on less familiar ground due to redistricting did worse: Every 10% of new voters in an incumbent’s district reduced that incumbent’s margin by 2.6 percentage points. Indeed, by dividing up political strongholds, the redistricting initially discouraged many incumbents from running.

On paper, the Top Two is probably the most radical reform. It aims to move towards a system where the parties are less important than the candidates. By contrast, the CRC is just a different decision-making process for an already mandated redistricting that only happens once a decade.

Yet, in hindsight, the CRC looks like the most profound change. It was copied in more states, disrupted more entrenched incumbents, and promoted more genuine competition than the first two. Whatever their limitations, parties are a strong and growing part of American political life. The Top Two fights upstream against this electoral reality, while the CRC instead seeks to contain it and ensure that party-centric elections are conducted fairly. The first two will continue to shape California’s elections in important ways, but redistricting reform may well have the most lasting legacy.