Comparing the 2009 California Reforms

by Zack Kaldveer, Consumer Federation of California, California Progress Report

If you’re confused by the slew of seemingly unrelated ballot measures scheduled to appear before voters in the next two elections – borne from the prolonged budget stalemate that nearly brought our state to its knees – then you’re not alone.

As many Californians are coming to realize, this year’s budget impasse ‘ as so many before it ‘ stemmed from the fact that California is one of only three states that require a two-thirds legislative majority to approve a budget regardless of the depth of the crisis.

As Republicans in the state senate and assembly refused to support any budget that contained revenue increases – state workers were forced to take two unpaid days leave a month, construction projects had been stopped, and state money to pay for social services had dried up.

This 2/3’s requirement offers the minority party in the Legislature a powerful bargaining chip. Republican State Sen. Abel Maldonado cashed that chip in this year because he represented the one ‘ and last ‘ vote needed to pass the budget and save the state from near total collapse. In exchange for that vote, Maldonado was able to win three major concessions, all to be placed before voters on the ballot in the next two elections.

The concessions given to Senator Maldonado were just a fraction of the unpopular proposals a small cabal of lawmakers were able to force into the final budget agreement as a result of this ‘minority rules’ requirement. Now California taxpayers will suffer the consequences. The average working family of four will pay an additional $1000 over the next 17 months in increased sales tax, personal income tax and vehicle license fees. At the same time, business gets about one billion dollars in tax breaks.

But one proposal completely unrelated to the budget that Senator Maldonado was able to have included on the June 2010 ballot is called a ‘top two’, or ‘open primary’ system. Maldonado claims that such a system offers the state a real ‘solution’ to California’s annual budget stalemates and gridlocked capitol.

The questions for those of us who have long fought to reform Sacramento and California’s electoral system is whether an ‘open primary’ system would indeed be an improvement over the status quo and how would it compare to other proposed reforms such as repealing the 2/3’s rule altogether, instituting a ranked choice voting system, or shifting to a publicly financed elections system?

The ‘Top Two’, ‘Open Primary’ System

Currently, anybody can run in the primary election of the party they are registered with – and anyone can vote in that primary for any party that agrees to let them do so.

Under Maldonado’s ‘Top Two’ system, candidates can decide for themselves whether they’ll display their party affiliation. In other words, all registered voters otherwise qualified to vote shall be guaranteed the unrestricted right to vote for the candidate of their choice in all state and congressional primary elections. All candidates for a given state or congressional office shall be listed on a single primary ballot. The top two candidates, as determined by the voters in the open primary, advance to a general election in which the winner shall be the candidate receiving the greatest number of votes cast.

According to proponents of this system, it will give voters a larger pool of candidates to choose from, increase the number of competitive races, result in more moderate legislators getting elected, and would guard against third party candidates acting as ‘spoilers’.

At closer inspection however, while voters would have more candidates to choose from in the primary election, only two candidates would remain ‘ potentially from the same party – in the General Election. To opponents of the system, this doesn’t seem like the best of ‘democratic’ trade offs, as the vast majority of citizens turn out to vote in the General, not the Primary.

Election reform expert Steven Hill of the New America Foundation points out another flaw in the open primary system, stating ‘In a very liberal district, say an urban area like Los Angeles, the top two candidates in November likely would be two Democrats; in a conservative district, the top two probably would be Republicans. Third-party candidates and independents almost never would appear on the November ballot. Once again, choice is reduced.’

So have any of the claims made by proponents of this system come to fruition in states that have adopted it? The answer to date is no. Washington and Louisiana both have ‘open primary’ systems similar to that advocated by Maldonado and neither has seen an increase in competitive races or more incumbents being unseated. Neither state has experienced a noticeable increase in ‘moderate’ legislators winning races nor has there been increased voter turnout in the primaries. In fact, the only substantial measurable ‘improvement’ has been the elimination of third party ‘spoilers’ in General Elections.

Of course, the way this ‘spoiler’ problem is solved is problematic in its own right: open primary systems exclude third party candidates from competing in the General Elections altogether. So while the ‘spoiler effect’ may be of modest concern to some voters, is the answer to eliminate third party and independent voices from the general election altogether?

Ranked Choice Voting

If the goal of open primary proponents like Senator Maldonado is to increase the number of competitive races, add more voices to the debate, eliminate the spoiler effect, and increase voter turnout, ranked choice voting appears to be a superior alternative in each respect.

Ranked choice voting allows voters to rank their first, second and third choice from among a field of candidates. If your first choice doesn’t win, that vote goes to your second choice, often termed a "runoff" vote. This process continues until one candidate reaches a majority of the vote. Such a system rules out spoiler candidates, enhances and expands voter choice, saves money that would be wasted on a runoff election, increases the focus on issues while decreasing negative campaigning, and strengthens ‘ rather than weakens – third party candidates opportunities.

Ranked choice voting has been an overwhelming success everywhere it’s been implemented. San Francisco has enjoyed dramatic increases in turnout, saved millions in taxpayer dollars otherwise spent on runoffs that invariably bring out very few voters to the polls, and created unprecedented diversity on the Board of Supervisors.

Based on all empirical evidence, ranked choice voting is a superior system to that of the open primary. But there is another campaign finance reform proposal on the June 2010 ballot that could help radically transform our current pay to play system – and will be in direct competition with Senator Maldonado’s proposal.

Public Financing and the Fair Election Act

Nearly $400 million was spent by candidates in California alone in the 2006 election. The corrosive influence of big business PAC money undermines every piece of legislation consumers care about. The public is the loser when big money donors dominate our elections.

Last year, AB 583, the California Fair Elections Act (Hancock, D-Oakland), was signed into law by Governor Schwarzenegger. The measure would provide for public financing of campaigns for the office of Secretary of State as a pilot project if it wins voter approval on the June 2010 ballot.

Unlike the behind the scenes dealings by Senator Maldonado to horse trade his vote in exchange for having his ‘open primary’ system added to the 2010 ballot, AB 583 was supported by thousands of California voters who contacted their legislators urging support for ‘Fair Elections’.

AB 583 was modeled after systems that have been working in Arizona and Maine for eight years and recently adopted by Connecticut and other localities. States that have adopted public financing systems have enjoyed increased voter confidence in government; allowed good people with new ideas to run and win because there’s a level playing field, allowed candidates to spend more time on issues and less time fundraising; and provided greater accountability from elected officials because voters rather than PAC’s and special interests pay for campaigns.

The Secretary of State race makes an ideal test for public financing because voters understand that the person that oversees their elections should be completely free from any possible pressures – or even perceived conflicts of interest – due to private campaign contributions.

The system would be funded by voluntary contributions designated on state tax returns and by a registration fee of $350 a year on lobbyists, lobbying firms, and lobbyist employers, the same as in Illinois. Currently lobbyists only pay $25 every two years in California, one of the lowest rates in the country.

The Consumer Federation of California believes this is a landmark opportunity for our state, and would do far more to fix our broken political system than the ‘open primary’.

Repeal the 2/3’s Rule and Support Fair Elections in 2010

To prevent long budget stalemates and unrelated ‘reform ideas’ put on special election ballots in return for votes California must re-assert the democratic principle of majority rule, end the tyranny of an out of touch minority, and repeal the 2/3’s requirement to pass a budget.

If nothing else, this year’s budget fiasco has created an outcry for governance reform. But rather than look to electoral gimmicks, we should instead support proven systems that work, like public financing of elections and ranked choice voting. In 2010 Californians may have an historic opportunity to accomplish two of these goals, one by voting for the Fair Elections Act, and if current efforts underway are successful, to vote to repeal the 2/3’s rule as well.