State Sen. Abel Maldonado wants to see more representatives like him, and that’s a good thing.
While some on the left see him as an opportunist and some on the right see him as a traitor, Maldonado is a moderate in a state Legislature that is more polarized than any in the country. California needs moderate legislators willing to compromise and reach broadly acceptable solutions to our crisis of governance. But Maldonado’s Proposition 14 ( “primary reform”) on the June 8 ballot should be rejected in favor of more genuine improvements to our electoral system.
Maldonado’s proposed solution, a “top-two” primary with all parties running on a single first ballot, is a flawed proposal that will do little to improve representation or governance. Having the top two candidates move on to the November general election if nobody receives majority support, regardless of what party they are in, will do little to weaken the choke hold that the Democratic and Republican party caucuses have on the legislative process.
A “top two” system would likely offer even more protection for incumbents than our current primaries. “Top two” primaries have been used in Louisiana from the 1970s to 2006 and in Washington in 2008, and in all those races, only two incumbent Congress members were defeated for re-election (not counting one race where two incumbents ran against each other due to redistricting). Under Maldonado’s plan, voter choice is limited while incumbent advantage is enhanced.
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This proposal would greatly weaken the possibility of a minor party candidate even getting access to a ballot, much less challenging the entrenched parties in November, due to tougher restrictions on ballot access. At a time when a quarter of Californian voters now decline to state a party preference, the two dominant parties would virtually lock out the competition with this “reform.” Even if our districts were less gerrymandered than they currently are, since only one party can ultimately win, fewer parties will run.
What the government needs, and what citizens deserve, is a process that more accurately reflects California’s electorate and injects genuine competition for leadership into the legislative process. A number of less expensive, more effective reforms should be considered.
Within single-member districts, “instant runoff” voting eliminates the need for a second round of campaigning by allowing voters to pick first, second and third choices, ensuring that winners receive broad support. Multi-member district elections can also be completed in one round. They expose parties to more competitive electorates, provide more accurate representation and reduce the incentive for parties to engage in elaborate gerrymandering schemes.
Our government is in such desperate need of reform that it would be hard to claim that Sen. Maldonado’s proposal could make things worse, but it could. There is little evidence to support the claim that a “top two” primary system would meaningfully reduce partisan gridlock. This is yet another Band-aid fix that fails to address our larger structural problems. Worse still, it would eliminate minor party competition at a time when we need it most.
Reject this proposal and work to open up our party system to greater participation, competition and leadership. The future of the state may depend on it.
Michael Latner is a assistant professor of political science at Cal Poly.