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Did Our Electoral Reforms Make Any Difference?

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Assembly House results from the November election.

This month Californians experienced a full round of elections under our new open primary, top-two election system and our new legislative lines, drawn for the first time in the state's history by an independent redistricting commission.

So did the systems fulfill their purposes? With respect to the top-two system, the terrific Joe Mathews recently said "no."

Under the top two system any voter can vote for any candidate in the primary election, regardless of party affiliation, and the top-two voter-getters, again regardless of party affiliation proceed to the general election. Instead of our typical primary elections in which we nominated a party representative to proceed to the general election, we have one large "open primary." And instead of our typical general election in which party nominees face off, we have something more like a runoff election in which only the top two candidates compete.

The purpose of the top-two system was to elect more moderate candidates. The idea was that the winner of each election would have to appeal to the entire electorate twice, and would therefore have to appeal to voters from both major parties.

First, there were 28 races in which two candidates from the same party competed against each other. The best-known example of these intra-party fights may be the scorched-earth contest between incumbent Democratic Congressmen Bran Sherman and Howard Berman. Sherman ultimately came out ahead in that race. Second, Democrats now control a super majority of both legislative state houses. An increase in the number of registered Democrats in California is also an important factor in allowing Democrats to obtain a two-thirds majority in the state assembly and state senate, but as Mathews pointed out, this could show that the top-two election system has not led to less partisanship or more independents in the legislature.

We also held a full round of elections under new legislative maps drawn by an independent redistricting commission rather than legislators. One of the purposes of the creation of the independent redistricting commission was to eliminate the ability of incumbents to draw legislative lines in order to keep their seats safe, instead of drawing legislative legislatives lines to keep communities of interest together.

Shortly after the election, the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) issued a report detailing a number of interesting facts, some of which can be attributed, at least in part, to the new reforms. The biggest sign on how they made a difference was the competitiveness, which led -- in what Mathews and I seem to both agree -- to more costly elections.

Additionally, Mathews may well be correct (as he is about so many other things) that the top two is worth ditching. He points to a lack of increased engagement in state races, a lack of benefit to independents and moderates, and no change to partisanship or number of incumbents. In addition, as Mathews explains, and as I have written about in depth, the top-two system all but guarantees that third party candidates will not appear on the general election ballot.

All that said, I'd still like to see a few more elections play out under the new system before rendering a final verdict on our electoral reforms.

Jessica Levinson writes about the intersection of law and government every Monday. She is an Associate Clinical Professor at Loyola Law School. Read more of her posts here.

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