CALIFORNIA TRIES A NEW WAY

Richard Reeves

LOS ANGELES -- The headline of the Los Angeles Times editorial page on the day after the state's primary on June 5 was: "What Tuesday Told Us: The top-two primary was held and the world kept turning."

As it has many times over more than a century, the Golden State again tried to reform its politics. This time the state is trying to break the partisan deadlock that has made governing almost impossible. No one is sure how the new reforms are working or will work.

This is what the state did over two years:

-- Voters in a 2010 referendum approved a proposition creating a randomly chosen citizens redistricting commission that drew new lines for both legislative and congressional districts.

-- At the same time, 2010, voters replaced the state's two-party primary system with an open "top-two" primary, in which all candidates were lumped together regardless of party, and mandated that the top-two finishers in June would face each other in the November general election. If two Democrats finished first and second, they would run again in the general election. Same if two Republicans topped the ballot in June.

Dan Schnur, of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, describes the state's problems this way:

"Over the years, the two major parties have retreated from the middle of the political playing field toward their respective ideological end zones. A decade of gerrymandering created such safe districts for members of both parties that legislators knew they would never lose to a candidate from the other party and could, in most cases, serve until they were forced out by term limits or infirmity."

So far, more than a dozen races still have not been settled. Also, even though turnout was at a historic low of 25 percent, almost a million ballots (mostly mail ballots) are not yet counted.

The results were pretty wild. Sen. Dianne Feinstein got 1.8 million votes -- 49 percent of the vote against 24 challengers. A Republican named Elizabeth Emken finished second with 454,937 votes. Those top two will run against each other in November. On the other hand, some races were decided by as few as 230 votes between the No. 2 and No. 3 candidates.

The most exciting race in November will be between two liberal Democrats, Rep. Howard Berman and Rep. Brad Sherman, who were forced into the same district by the citizens commission. Longtime friends, Berman and Sherman have almost identical voting records in Congress. Berman is running for his 16th term, Sherman for his ninth.

The conventional wisdom here is that primaries formerly drove candidates to the extreme in one-party primaries. With the new reforms, hopefully primary candidates will campaign in the middle of the political spectrum because they will want both liberal and conservative votes.

Will it work? Too soon to tell. It will take a few more elections to bring more moderates into the system -- if it accomplishes that. One result of this primary was that businesses donated more money to Democrats in safe Democratic districts, and labor did the same for Republicans in safe Republican districts.

The Times answered its own question this way:

"Won't top two and independent redistricting deprive California of some of its most senior elected officials by making them run in competitive races that they might lose? Perhaps. In the Assembly and the Senate, though, voters won back for themselves the option of sticking with a little seniority over new blood by convincingly approving Proposition 28. The term-limits tweak will allow a state lawmaker to ask voters to keep him or her in place, in the same house, for up to 12 years, instead of shuttling back and forth for up to 15 years."

Again, it's worth a try in the very tarnished Golden State.

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