Dan Walters

Opinion: Dem decree on ballot biting back

As oft-noted in this space, changes in rules governing political campaigns and elections always affect outcomes – usually on purpose.

Politicians who make the rule changes may say they are enhancing civic life, but they design them to improve their chances of winning elections.

Political rule-changing, however, is not an exact science and sometimes has unintended consequences.

We may be seeing such an effect from a 2011 decree by Democratic legislators and Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown that all future initiative ballot measures would appear on the November general election ballot.

It changed 40 years of splitting measures between primary and general elections, depending on when they qualified, and everyone in the Capitol knew that the bill, drafted in secret and hastily enacted during the final days of the 2011 legislative session, had a political motive.

While ostensibly enhancing fairness, it was really aimed at making passage of one pending measure more difficult.

The measure, despised by unions and their Democratic allies, would have limited unions’ ability to extract campaign funds from their members.

The stratagem worked as the measure was rejected by voters in 2012. But by stripping ballot measures from the June primary ballot the 2011 bill has also, it’s now apparent, driven voter turnout for primaries sharply downward.

Lower turnout, moreover, interacts with the state’s “top-two” primary system to make Republican voters more influential in choosing which legislative and congressional candidates make it onto the November ballot.

Turnout plummeted to a historic low last June, with just 25 percent of registered voters casting ballots. And polling indicated that Democrats outnumbered Republicans by just four percentage points.

University of California, San Diego, political scientist Thad Kousser cites the ballot measure shift in analyzing top-two primary impacts.

“The clear message (of turnout data) is that although Democrats today hold a 15-point registration edge in the electorate overall, that advantage shrinks dramatically in primaries, particularly during midterms,” Kausser writes.

Pollster Mark DiCamillo of the Field Institute made the same point during a recent UC Berkeley conference on the 2014 elections, saying that he largely blames the lack of ballot measures for a low primary turnout.

Democratic Party leaders and unions dislike the top-two system because it sharply reduced the control they had long wielded over who could seek legislative seats, thus opening the door to more independent, and perhaps more moderate, candidates.

It’s evident, however, that by shifting ballot measures to the November ballot and driving down primary voter turnout, Democrats magnified the top-two system’s effects and thus lessened their influence even more.

Call The Bee’s Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, sacbee.com/dan-walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.

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