Top-two primary system hasn't worked as proponents promised

New academic research on California's top-two primary system finds it's done little to help elect moderates

Reinvention is part of California's credo, the inalienable right of every man, woman and child to make of themselves and their lives what they will — and do it over again, if they're not happy the first time.

Second chances, surgical alterations, artificial enhancement — the only limits are wealth and the imagination.

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FOR THE RECORD

Primary system: In the Feb. 8 California section, a California Politics column about the state's top-two primary said that voters with no party preference were forbidden to cast ballots under the old system of choosing nominees. In June 2010, when the top-two measure was before voters, the rules allowed such voters to cast a ballot in the Democratic or Republican primary if they requested.

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That extends not just to the body beautiful but the body politic.

After years of partisan squabbling, massive budget deficits and general haplessness in Sacramento, voters grew fed up and decided it was time for a government makeover. One result was Proposition 14, passed in June 2010 and intended to help bring a new breed of more accommodating, less ideological lawmaker to the state capital. (The proposition also covered congressional and U.S. Senate contests, for good measure.)

It was supposed to work like this: Candidates would run in a free-for-all primary with the two top vote-getters advancing to a November runoff, regardless of party affiliation. Absent the need to appease the most puritanical elements of the major parties, the thinking went, candidates would broaden their appeal to the many voters in the middle.

Voila! A more harmonious, pragmatic and productive Legislature. (Fixing Washington's scabrous culture would, presumably, take longer.)

Has it worked? In short, no, not yet.

New academic research, published Sunday by the California Journal of Politics & Policy, found that voters were just as apt to support candidates representing the same partisan poles as they were before the election rules changed — that is, if they even bothered voting.

Moreover, the studies found, while there is indication of a somewhat more "business-friendly" — another way of saying moderate — approach to lawmaking by Sacramento's majority Democrats, there is no conclusive evidence the change resulted from California's new way of choosing its lawmakers.

"To summarize, our articles find very limited support for the moderating effects associated with the top-two primary," Washington University's Betsy Sinclair wrote, summarizing half a dozen research papers.

(A link to the journal, published by the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley, is here.)

It is much too soon, after fewer than a handful of elections, to draw definitive conclusions about the top-two primary, much less declare it a success or failure. Like any change, it will take a period of adjustment, not least for Californians accustomed to approaching their ballot in a more conventional fashion. As Sinclair wrote, "It is possible that voters simply need to adapt."

But the research, based on thousands of voter interviews and data from the last two elections, does suggest impediments that must be overcome if the system is to have its desired moderating effect.

For starters, voters will have to pay far closer attention to their choices. Some candidates may have hugged the middle in a bid to entice more pragmatic-minded voters, but the research suggests relatively few voters noticed. There was little discernment between, say, a flaming liberal and a more accommodating Democrat; in most voters' minds they fell under the same party umbrella.

In addition, voters will have to be less partisan themselves, showing a far greater willingness to support a moderate of the other party over a more extreme member of their own. Research into 2012's state Assembly races found an exceedingly small percentage of so-called cross-over voters: just 5.5% of Democrats and 7.6% of Republicans sided with a candidate from the other party.

"Orphaned voters," or those who didn't have a candidate from their party advance to the general election, typically lost interest in the contest; so, for instance, rather than support the more moderate of two Republicans in a November runoff, Democrats simply didn't vote.

The top-two system also fell short on another of its promises: boosting turnout.

Voters with no party preference — the fastest-growing segment of the state electorate — were forbidden from casting ballots under the old system of partisan primaries. One selling point of Proposition 14 was that independents would be allowed to participate in the nominating process, broadening the pool of potential voters.

But as researchers noted, the June 2014 primary drew barely 1 in 4 registered voters, the lowest turnout in California history.

Proponents of the ballot measure didn't necessarily mislead people. But they seem to have invested more hope than merited in the virtues of their transformative surgery.

To have its promised effect, Proposition 14 will have to overcome both widespread ignorance and deep apathy among California voters.

Otherwise, the reform is just skin deep.

Twitter: @markzbarabak

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