Incremental changes in California’s electoral system in recent years have had the effect – intended or inadvertent – of making its June primary elections less decisive.
What will happen, or not happen, in next week’s primary will drive home that degradation of importance.
Once, for example, California voters faced big ballot issues on their primary ballots – a prime example being Proposition 13, the landmark property tax limit that voters passed in 1978 and is still a major factor in state and local government finance.
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However, in 2011, Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature decreed that initiative measures could no longer appear on the primary ballot but had to face voters in November.
That’s why next week’s ballot has just one statewide proposition, which would, if passed, allow the Legislature to suspend its members, without pay, if they are accused of serious crimes – a measure arising out of a series of recent prosecutions. Proposition 50 can go before voters next week because the Legislature cleverly exempted itself from the June ballot measure blackout.
It’s also why voters will face as many as 18 ballot measures in November, which will be confusing and in some cases counterproductive.
The official rationale for shifting initiatives to November was that it was inherently unfair to decide them in a primary, in which turnouts are low and often skewed by the politics of the moment.
That has some validity, but it wasn’t the real reason for the shift. It was to block one pending ballot measure that public employee unions despised from being placed before voters in the 2012 primary election when, it was feared, a low turnout might help it pass.
The ploy worked. However, like all changes in the rules governing the political game, the shift had ancillary impacts, and in this case it was to make the June ballot not only less decisive but less interesting and resulted in a record-low 2014 primary voter turnout, just 25 percent of registered voters.
The advent of the top-two primary system also made June balloting less decisive and therefore less interesting.
Once, most legislative and congressional elections were settled in June because winning nomination by the district’s dominant party was tantamount to election. Now, however, the top two finishers, regardless of party, face each other in November, and that often means two from the same party.
The syndrome is quite evident in the cast-of-thousands primary contest for a vacant U.S. Senate seat. Attorney General Kamala Harris is favored to finish first, and under the old system, had she won the Democratic nomination in June, that probably would have ended it in such a blue state.
This year, another Democrat, Rep. Loretta Sanchez, is favored to finish second, which would mean an intraparty November duel – one in which Republican and independent voters could be decisive.
In fact, this primary is a just a tuneup to many Democrat vs. Democrat contests for political offices as the party and its voters are torn between liberal groups – environmentalists and unions, particularly – and business interests.