Walter Mencken 6:15 p.m., Feb. 28
Impact of new state election laws lighter than expected
A new study from the Public Policy Institute of California finds that using an independent commission rather than state legislators to re-draw political districts and the state’s new “top two” primary system that sends the two highest vote-getters to a November runoff has resulted in more open primary seats and more competition for state and federal races, but it hasn’t necessarily changed the status quo all that much.
Despite claims made by supporters of the two new measures, backing from a major party is still a major determinant in lending legitimacy to a candidate. Every incumbent in California advanced to the November ballot, as did 101 of 113 candidates backed by Republicans or Democrats.
“The primary results were broadly in line with what might have been expected under the old system,” says Eric McGhee, policy fellow at the Institute and co-author of the report, Test-driving California’s Election Reforms.
In state races, the facts also buck expert predictions when it comes to campaign spending: the flow of money was largely unaffected by changes to the election system. The Institute did find, however, a significant increase in spending on federal House of Representatives races.
Redistricting has presented a challenge to many incumbent lawmakers. Nine of the state’s 53 incumbent House members are facing challenges from redrawn districts (see the Reader News Ticker’s coverage of the 52nd district race between incumbent Brian Bilbray and challenger Scott Peters for more), while nine of 20 state Senate seats are open, as are 35 of 80 Assembly seats. Ten House races are now considered “competitive,” as compared to four in 2010, a sign that independent mapmakers were less inclined to draw district boundaries to create safe zones for one party or another.
For those districts still considered “uncompetitive,” incumbents are now much more likely to face a challenge from within their own party – 42 percent of incumbents faced a challenger from within their own party, more than twice the average number from 2002-2010.
The top-two primary system, which could result in two Republicans or two Democrats squaring off if neither the opposing party nor a third party candidate garners enough votes for a second-place finish, brings the state 28 contests between two candidates of the same party – 18 for state Assembly, 2 for state Senate, and 8 for the U.S. House.
The big losers in the top-two switch, as predicted by detractors in the lead-up to the adoption of the new system, are third-party candidates. Only five races statewide feature a minor-party or “no party preference” candidate, and in three of these instances that candidate was a write-in against an otherwise uncontested candidate.
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