Capitol Alert

Republican moves to eliminate California’s top-two election system

In this 2010 file photo, then state Sen. Abel Maldonado, R-Santa Maria, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger head to a press conference.
In this 2010 file photo, then state Sen. Abel Maldonado, R-Santa Maria, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger head to a press conference. hamezcua@sacbee.com

Frustrated that Democrats dominate elective office in California, a Republican eyeing a 2018 run against Sen. Dianne Feinstein wants to repeal the state’s top-two primary system that he says shuts out Republicans and disproportionately propels left-wing Democrats into office.

“There’s no question more liberal candidates have been more successful,” said Thomas Palzer, who is pushing an initiative for the November 2018 ballot to repeal a clause in the California Constitution that says regardless of party, the top two vote-getters in a primary election advance to a November runoff. “To me, that’s not representative government.”

Voters adopted the top-two primary system in 2010 after a political deal involving former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and then state Sen. Abel Maldonado put it on the ballot. It was aimed at encouraging more competitive races and seen as a way to help more moderate candidates get elected.

“That was really a lie,” Palzer said, noting the Democratic hold on the state Legislature, where they have a supermajority. Palzer also mentioned last year’s U.S. Senate race, in which Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris faced off against former Rep. Loretta Sanchez, also a Democrat. It was the first time since 1914 that a Republican wasn’t on a general election ballot.

Palzer, 68, was one of 12 Republican candidates who ran unsuccessfully for the seat to succeed former Sen. Barbara Boxer.

“That really enlightened me in terms of the top-two...the odds were slim of any Republican getting on the ticket,” Palzer said. “I’m not doing this to grease the slicks for myself...regardless of party, it’s a bad law and it needs to be repealed. It affects every voter. They’re being cheated out of the ability to look at top candidates from every party and then make their decision.”

Generally, there was hope that the system would “give a leg up to candidates who were not favored by the Democratic and Republican establishments,” according to Eric McGhee of the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California. In a 2016 analysis, McGhee said “at least some” same-party races pit moderates against more liberal or conservative candidates, and in some cases, the more moderate candidates “might win.”

Both Republicans and Democrats oppose the top-two system. It has been criticized by the Republican Party for making it more difficult for Republican candidates to make it through a primary contests in a state growing more blue, and by Democrats because it forces them to fight one another, driving up the cost of races.

Palzer estimated that he’ll need between $4 million and $12 million to successfully put the initiative on the ballot next year. He’s seeking to raise money from the state Democratic Party and the Republican Party, as well as the California’s Green Party, Tea Party caucus, interest groups and individuals. So far he has raised between $80,000 and $100,000, he said.

He’s also reached out to Tea Party activists and a statewide coalition that backed Donald Trump for president called “Californians for Making America Great Again.”

“I’m coordinating with Trump groups, Libertarians, the Green Party...Democrats and Republicans...they already know the top two is not good for them,” Palzer said.

The state Republican Party declined to say whether it formally supports or opposes the system, but when it was on the ballot in 2010 it was against it. Cynthia Bryant, executive director for the party, said delegates would declare an official position after the initiative qualifies for the ballot, should it gather enough signatures to qualify.

In a statement, state Democratic Party Chairman Eric Bauman argued the top-two system “weakens the Democratic Party.”

“Progressives have been forced to spend nearly $200 million in contests featuring two Democrats,” Bauman said. “This is a system that silences the Democratic base and completely excludes third parties from even competing in the fall...the fact that this initiative was filed by Republicans underscores how flawed the top-two system really is.”

Bauman said repealing the system is a core priority for the party.

The state Attorney General’s office received a draft of Palzer’s ballot initiative Monday. It has 65 days to review the initiative before it’s allowed to go out for signatures. It would need 585,407 signatures to qualify.

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