Last week, we brought you our own IVA coverage of the debut of the “top two” open primary system in California. Open or “jungle” primaries pit politicians of all parties against each other with the top two vote getters advancing to the general election, regardless of party affiliation. In theory, this reform gives an advantage to moderate and Independent politicians who run to the center, rather than extreme partisan rhetoric which has traditionally ruled closed primary systems. Although low turnout and enthusiasm last Tuesday offered muted empirical evidence, we’re optimistic about the future of open primaries in California and across the country.
Of course, we weren’t the only ones with interesting coverage, analysis, or future prognostications about this political reform that should eventually be a huge advantage for independent voters. Here’s a few illuminating thoughts from members of the political media about the debut of last Tuesday’s top two primaries:
“In the past, districts that heavily favored one major party over the other would be decided in the dominant party’s primary, making the general election meaningless. This year many of those districts feature races between two candidates of the same party, or against an independent candidate. This ensures that in November, all the candidates will have to work harder for the independent vote.”
“Darry Sragow, a veteran Democratic campaign strategist who founded No Labels, a nonpartisan nonprofit “dedicated to breaking the stranglehold that the extremes have on our political process,” said Tuesday’s primary must be seen as just the beginning. “It’s part of a process that is beginning to pick up speed,” he said, ” that reflects a lot of voters and a number of political insiders who are incredibly frustrated with gridlock in government and are in a variety of ways trying to crack the system open.”
“The real impact of the top-two primary system will be more acutely felt in the fall, as members of the same political party battle in the general election, said Dan Schnur, the director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. Tuesday’s results mean that roughly one of every five seats in the state’s Congressional delegation will be contested by candidates with the same party affiliation. A race that pits two candidates from the same party against each other, Mr. Schnur said, will be “maddening for parties but a huge opportunity for voters” because politicians who win will be more likely to compromise.”
“Historically low turnout of 15 percent – the lowest ever in the state for a presidential primary – makes it hard to draw definitive conclusions from the Tuesday vote. But one survey of the results suggests the system shows promise. “The new, top two ballot used in California’s primary election appears to give moderate candidates in state races a 6-7 percent boost compared to the traditional, more restricted ballot,” concludes the report by the Institute of Governmental Studies (IGS) at the University of California, Berkeley.
“It looks like voters want to vote for more moderate candidates and will do so if the ballot provides the opportunity,” said Gabriel Lenz, a UC Berkeley political scientist who led the survey for IGS. Other analysts are more enthusiastic. “This election is a turning point,” says David McCuan, a political scientist at Sonoma State University. “This is a portent of things to come nationally.” He says that it will take a few election cycles for the evidence of moderation to prove true – and for voters to get used to the new, longer ballots. But he and others agree that the new system points in the direction where American voters are headed. A growing share of Americans is registering as independent, and California’s top-two primary allows such voters to be more engaged in the political process.”
“It’s a difficult campaign to win no matter what your party is,” [Independent candidate Linda] Parks said. “Independent candidates don’t have the infrastructure. They don’t have the mega-million dollars in PAC money.” Parks, a Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-independent, could not say whether the open primary structure would eventually lead to more moderate lawmakers getting elected, but Parks said it is necessary.
“I became an independent, and I’m going to stay that way for the rest of my life,” she said. “The campaign that we just witnessed was another example of why we need more independents. It shouldn’t just be about parties.” Gabriel Lenz, an assistant political science professor at UC Berkeley, said he was surprised no-party preference candidates did not benefit from the open primary. “I don’t know why they (voters) didn’t seem to cross over to vote for them,” Lenz said. “It’s in some ways more likely that they’ll do that in the general than the primary. People will pay a little more attention.”