Editorial: There’s good reason to pay attention this election season

With the closing of the candidate filing period on Friday, California kicked off another election season. And though there won’t be any rock stars, presidents or life-changing measures on the statewide ballot in June, there’s good reason to pay attention.

For one thing, it’s the first time that California’s experiment with open primaries figures into the statewide seats. Proposition 14, which established the top-two primary for state and congressional races, was adopted by California voters during another midterm primary election in 2010. That was the same year we last voted for governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state and all the other down-ticket seats.

In the intervening years, the top-two system has begun reshaping races in new and interesting ways by sending the No. 1 and No. 2 vote-getters to the general election regardless of party affiliation.

The promise of Proposition 14 was that it would transform races, creating free-for-alls in which candidates from any party – or no party – could compete, and help elect more moderate lawmakers.

The promise has been fulfilled somewhat. In 2012, two Republicans, Frank Bigelow and Rico Oller, competed for a San Joaquin Valley Assembly seat. In the past, these two would have duked it out in a primary, with the winner, generally the most conservative, facing a hapless Democrat. Given the GOP’s registration advantage, the more conservative candidate would come to Sacramento. As it happened, Oller and Bigelow faced one another in the general, and Bigelow, the more practical politician, prevailed.

Having more moderates in elected office is good for California. The June primary will bring that possibility to statewide offices. Voters have a vested interest in participating in the primary and not waiting for the November general election.

Among the races that are worth watching this spring is the one to replace Debra Bowen as secretary of state. A lot of people want the job as the state’s main election chief and business filings master, including Democratic Sens. Alex Padilla and Leland Yee; and Dan Schnur, the first serious statewide candidate under the new system who is not a member of either party and is director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.

Also running are Pete Peterson, the executive director of the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership at Pepperdine University; and Derek Cressman, a former vice president of Common Cause. All of them have the promise to be a stronger advocate for transparency and voting than the current secretary of state.

The state controller race, too, will be competitive in the primary. Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez has been locking up big labor endorsements, but he won’t have a cakewalk. Board of Equalization member Betty Yee and Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin are seeking the seat, too.

Locally, Democratic Assemblymen Roger Dickinson and Richard Pan are running to succeed Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg in Sacramento. There will be at least three hotly contested Assembly races in Sacramento and Yolo counties. Four Sacramento City Council seats will be on the ballot as well as a city library tax.

As part of this process, the editorial board will be interviewing candidates and making endorsements in competitive races – and generally trying to point out reasons to become engaged.

Mindy Romero, the director of the California Civic Engagement Project at UC Davis, said it’s possible that the top-two primaries can reinvigorate voting in the primary races, which typically have low turnouts. So far, there’s no data to back that up. In fact, it could be going the other way. In June 2010, about 24 percent of the eligible voters participated, according to the secretary of state’s office. In June 2012, it was just 22 percent, and that was a presidential primary.

Every election is important, no matter how small, as it gives our democracy a workout. To keep California’s democracy in shape, let’s buck that primary trend this year.