Sunday, August 14, 2011

June 2012 California Primary

Where to put the California Presidential Primary has long been a contentious issue. This year the state's politicians easily agreed that next-year's primary will be in June.

For local races (including Congress and the U.S. Senate) a June primary has always made good sense. For offices like the California State Assembly that come up every two years, having a February primary means there is only about a year in every 2 year cycle that the incumbent does not need to be campaigning. It also means a huge lull for the public between February and the runoff election in November. It also means low voter turnouts.

For Presidential nominees, the question is how much California will influence the nomination process. Because of the size of its population, California has a large proportion of votes at national nominating conventions. Because of its political culture, California tends to be more liberal than most other states both within the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. An early California primary in 2012 would have helped moderate contenders in the Republican Party. On the other hand having an early primary would not necessarily make California a king-maker. Having a late primary is a gamble if you care about such things. The contest may be all-but-over, making California votes seem irrelevant. Or the field will have narrowed to two viable candidates, and California voters would get to pick the nominee.

Usually it is the Democratic Party faithful who want an early primary, but this year they are mostly holding their steam (about Afghanistan, war spending, and compromises with the Republican) and hoping no serious left-of-Obama contender comes forward. Uniting behind the incumbent is their best bet at holding onto what national power they have.

The June 2012 election could be a groundbreaking election totally apart from the Presidential nomination aspect. The two big game changers are Proposition 14, which makes the primaries less partisan, and redistricting.

Redistricting occurs every ten years, after the results from the U.S. census are returned. In the past California political districts were designed by incumbents, for incumbents. In partisan political terms this meant district lines were drawn to maximize the percentage of either Republicans or Democrats (including independent (Decline To State) voters known to typically vote one way or the other). This actually reduced the number of Democrats in Congress, the State Assembly and State Senate from its theoretical maximum. More of the new districts will have less-than-landslide sized Democratic majorities. While in theory this could help the Republican cause in some elections, the most likely outcome is more Democrats will win these seats. The California Citizens Redistricting Commission will vote on adopting its final maps on August 15, 2011.

Proposition 14, which passed in June 2010, makes partisan primaries more like non-partisan local and school board elections. Candidates can still list a political party, but the winner in each political party does not proceed to the runoff election. The top two vote getters advance to the November runoff, even if they are in the same party.

This non-partisan reform measure could have a big impact, if entrenched interests can't eliminate it (they are suing to block it) or find ways to manipulate the new mechanics. It encourages challengers from within the dominant political party in a district, as well as serious independent and small party candidates. Take a district that is 60% Democrat and 40% Republican, not unusual in California. In the past typically a right-wing Republican and an incumbent Democrat would win their respective primaries. Then the Democrat would win the runoff. [Invert the scenario for Republican dominated districts in the Central Valley or San Diego]

Now a centrist candidate, Republican, Democrat, third party or even decline-to-state might pick up enough votes to become one of the top two vote getters. If they hold the center together, they can get elected.

If enough candidates see this new opportunity to take on incumbents, we might even see another scenario from time to time. Say three Democrats run and Two Republicans. Suddenly third parties like the Libertarians and Green Party could be viable. Taking 20% of the vote in the primary could make the third-party candidate one of the top two. In particular it would be interesting to see elections in left-leaning districts that pit a Green Party citizen against an incumbent Democrat.

Whatever the outcome, redistricting and non-partisan elections are good for democracy. Hopefully 2012 will just be the beginning of opening up our system to participation by citizens who do not already belong to powerful, entrenched lobbying groups.