California Forum

So should we dump California’s top-two primary, or what?

David Quiel, an elections assistant, works on a machine that processes vote by mail ballots in Sacramento, Calif., on Thursday, May 17, 2018. California’s top-two primary has produced 32 U.S. Senate candidates and 27 for governor.
David Quiel, an elections assistant, works on a machine that processes vote by mail ballots in Sacramento, Calif., on Thursday, May 17, 2018. California’s top-two primary has produced 32 U.S. Senate candidates and 27 for governor. rbyer@sacbee.com

Twenty-seven candidates for governor? Thirty-two for U.S. Senate? So many congressional contenders in some districts that voters get them confused?

Californians can be forgiven for wondering what they were thinking when the state adopted its aptly named “jungle” primary in 2010.

Let’s reflect on the wee hours of a winter morning in February 2009 at the state Capitol. California’s top-two primary did not exist; a version of it had been tried and booted out by the courts.

The wailing and teeth-gnashing has spanned the political spectrum this year as throngs of statewide, legislative and congressional candidates jostle to make it to the November runoffs. Democrats frantic for a check on President Donald Trump are crowding each other out in congressional races. Third parties are complaining that they’re now more marginalized than ever.

“I hate the top-two,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R- Bakersfield, told The New York Times last month as millions of dollars in outside donations poured into the state, amplifying the chaos. The state Democratic Party’s chairman, Eric Bauman, complained last summer that the system “weakens the Democratic Party” and “silences the Democratic base.”

So let’s dump the top-two primary, right? Isn’t that our thing in this state? In with the new?

We hate to sound un-Californian, but not so fast, people. As the June 5 primary approaches, let’s pause to reflect.

Specifically, let’s reflect on the wee hours of a winter morning in February 2009 at the state Capitol. California’s top-two primary did not exist; a version of it had been tried and booted out by the courts and was barely a twinkle in the bleary eyes of a few Democratic and Republican centrists.

Each party nominated its candidate the old-fashioned way, on a separate ballot or at a party convention. Primaries were dominated by the base and the true believers; that, plus gerrymandering plus a two-thirds threshold for passing a state budget made it almost impossible for legislators to accomplish anything of substance.

The budget was 100 days overdue – par for the course in what was then a Golden State of gridlock. The Legislature had already been ranked as one of the most dysfunctional in the nation, and now the state was in the depths of a crippling recession. California was going broke. Our bond rating had tanked. Services were being threatened, federal stimulus money was at risk, revenue was desperately needed and ideological Republicans were dug in because they had forced each other to sign no-new-tax pledges.

This was the sad state of affairs when, in a last-ditch move, a Republican state senator, Abel Maldonado, agreed to help Democrats pass a tax increase in return for their help passing a package of initiatives to put more moderates into office.

On that morning, in a marathon deal brokered by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Senate President Darrell Steinberg, Assembly Speaker Karen Bass and Sen. Dave Cogdill (who was ousted as leader of the Senate Republicans for his trouble), the Legislature hauled itself back from the brink.

The top-two primary was part of the result.

Since then, the change at the Capitol has been so striking that it’s hard to remember how truly awful state government was in that paralyzed era. Budgets pass on time now, thanks to a shift to a simple majority requirement for approval. Legislative districts make sense, thanks to a switch from partisan gerrymandering to an independent redistricting commission. In the Assembly, the top-two system, which lets the top two vote getters progress to the general election regardless of party, has made a cadre of moderate, pro-business Democrats a somewhat leavening force.

Yes, the Legislature, like the state, is dominated by Democrats and last week, Republicans officially shrank to third-party status, behind voters with no party preference. And yes, at the moment, resistance and rage are trumping the center.

But even on this year’s fraught ticket, there’s former Republican Steve Poizner, running as an independent for Insurance Commissioner, and favored to win. Under the old system, there would be no place on the ballot in this hyper-partisan year for a moderate like him.

That’s why it’s too soon to indulge the top-two trash talkers. Party leaders and old power players may not like the current system, but rage won’t rule forever, and Californians need only look at the rest of the country to imagine this election without some counterbalance to the political extremes.

One tweak, however, may be worth consideration: The Legislature should rethink its move last year to make it easier to file as a candidate for office. Right now, candidates for governor must pay either a $3,916.12 fee (2 percent of the annual salary) or submit 7,000 signatures; the Legislature reduced that number from 10,000. Only 2,000 signatures are required to run for U. S. House and state Senate, and only 1,000 for Assembly.

These are serious jobs; some more proof of support shouldn’t be too much to ask for. And voters need at least some way to tell who’s fit for survival. After all, it’s a jungle out there.

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