Dan Walters

California’s peculiar election rules affect who wins and who loses

Anna Molander, chair of the Sacramento County Democratic Party, and Richard Winger talk after a news conference on May, 11, 2010, in opposition to Proposition 14, which created the state’s “top-two” primary election system.
Anna Molander, chair of the Sacramento County Democratic Party, and Richard Winger talk after a news conference on May, 11, 2010, in opposition to Proposition 14, which created the state’s “top-two” primary election system. Sacramento Bee file

The votes cast in Tuesday’s primary election are being counted, but one outcome is certain – California’s political rules affect who wins and who loses.

That was certainly true at the presidential level, particularly in the down-to-the-wire duel between Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

The Democratic Party’s arbitrary assignment of delegates by congressional district is one example, as is allowing decline-to-state voters to participate, but only if they request special ballots.

The impact of rules on the political game is even more evident in the 100 legislative seats that are up this year. Two game-changing rules, adopted a decade apart, have completely transformed how men and women get elected to the Legislature, and therefore what happens afterward.

In 2000, the Legislature’s majority Democrats placed Proposition 34 on the ballot, telling voters that it would “clamp a lid on campaign contributions” and thus reduce the influence of special interest money in politics.

Their chief goal was blunting efforts by political reform groups to place tighter limits on contributions, but an ancillary motive, as I and other analysts pointed out at the time, was to have “independent expenditures” play a bigger role in campaign finance.

The reason is quite simple: If someone else spends money on a candidate’s behalf, particularly attacking an opponent, it allows the beneficiary to remain unsullied while allowing the source of the spending to remain relatively obscure.

Far from limiting special interest money in politics, Proposition 34 opened the floodgates. IEs, as they’re called, have grown exponentially since 2000 with at least $28 million reported for this week’s primary.

The expansion of IEs has much to do with the second big rule change – adoption of a “top-two” primary system in 2010, via a measure very reluctantly placed on the ballot by the Legislature’s majority Democrats as the price for securing enough Republican votes to pass the 2009-10 budget.

Under Proposition 14, the two highest vote-getters in the primary, regardless of party, face each other again in November, and it’s been the vehicle for business interests to build a bloc of moderate Democrats and stave off legislation pushed by unions, environmentalists and other liberal groups.

Business – joined this year by charter schools and other education reform groups – have spent lavishly, via IEs, to boost simpatico Democrats into runoffs with more liberal Democrats in key legislative districts.

Unions, environmental groups and their allies in the Capitol’s perpetual conflict can do the same, of course, for their preferred candidates, but they also face something of a conundrum.

Most of the major measures headed for the November ballot are sponsored by liberal interests – topped by the union-backed measure to extend temporary taxes on high-income Californians.

They may have to choose, therefore, between pumping money into ballot measures and propping up their preferred candidates as business spends tens of millions more on IEs in key legislative races.

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