The June Ballot: Lots of Reform, How Much Change?


Posted on 27 May 2012

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By Peter Schrag

Those of us who can be bothered to go to the polls in next month’s primary, or fill out and send back our mail ballots, will probably notice that almost everything seems different: the districts, the ballots, the chance to fiddle with the state’s term limits law.

Whether you’re registered as a Democrat or a Republican or decline to state, your ballot will have all Assembly candidates on one list, all state Senate candidates on another, all congressional candidates on another, regardless of party.

You’ll find Democrat Dianne Feinstein in eighth place among U.S. Senate candidates,
just under Marsha Feinland, who defines her party preference as Peace and Freedom.

Among the 24 on the Senate ballot, there are five other Democrats, an American Independent, a Libertarian, another Peace and Freedom candidate and fourteen Republicans. One of them is lawyer-doctor Orly Taitz, the mother of all Birthers. You can vote for any one of them.

The two among those 24 with the most votes in the primary, regardless of party, will meet in the November general election.

You probably won’t find as long a list on the ballot for the House of Representatives or for the Assembly or the state Senate. And you’ll still get to vote by party for president and members of the respective county central committees.

If you’re a Republican, you can still vote for Gingrich or Paul or Santorum or Fred
Karger or Buddy Roemer.

The great idea behind this new “Top Two” system, as well as the change in the state’s redistricting law, which shifted authority for the decennial reapportionment from the legislature to an independent, bipartisan commission, was to reduce partisanship, produce more centrist candidates and (maybe) draw a few more competitive districts.

If candidates running for Congress or for the state legislature in the primary had to appeal to all voters and not just to members of one party, the theory went, they would temper their politics and moderate their message.

We won’t know how good a bet that will turn out to be until June – and maybe not until November. For the first time in years, five Republicans have refused to take Grover Norquist’s no new taxes pledge. But given the way voters sort themselves out geographically, many of those new commission-drawn districts may be almost as solidly blue or red as the politically gerrymandered districts that the legislature drew a decade ago.

What’s almost certain is that because candidates have to reach all the voters in a district, and not just those of one party, this primary will almost certainly be the costliest ever, meaning that interest groups with deep pockets will have an even greater influence than in the past.

All the signs so far indicate that both super-rich individuals like Republican Charles Munger, a funder of the initiative changing the redistricting process and a backer of the Top Two primary, and special interest groups like the Chamber of Commerce and Michelle Rhee’s Students First, a pro-charter school group, are spending big bucks to influence the primaries.

And sometimes they’re spending it on candidates of parties that they might not normally back -- the Chamber and the Realtors on Democrats, the public employee unions on some Republicans. That’s not unprecedented, but it probably hasn’t happened to this extent in the recent past. Munger’s people have been quoted as saying that they’re not looking for moderates so much as people "who will talk to one another rather than yell at one another." But most money won’t go to goo-goo moderation. It will go to special interest influence.

And because the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision now allows the so-called super PACs to raise money from corporations, unions and others in unlimited amounts in federal elections and spend them on behalf or against candidates as they wish, interest-group clout in congressional races will become even greater.

On the June ballot, we also have an additional stab at reform in Proposition 28, which would slightly modify California’s legislative term limits, which now restrict all Assembly members to three two-year terms and state Senate members to two four-year terms, a total fourteen years. Proposition 28 would change that to a total of twelve years in any one house or any combination of the two.

As always, both sides pitch their arguments as attempts to check the vile behavior of politicians. It would, say the proponents, keep members from planning for their next campaign almost from the day they’re first elected and concentrate more on the people’s business. Under Proposition 28, say the opponents, the members of the Assembly will “actually HAVE THEIR TIME IN OFFICE DOUBLED –NOT REDUCED.”

We can always hope that Proposition 28 will increase the level of experience, especially in the Assembly -- maybe we’ll have fewer freshman chairs of committees and wet-behind-the-ears speakers. Maybe the members will even develop a bit more of a sense of responsibility for the future. If you have a chance to be around for twelve years instead of six, you might think a little more about the future consequences of your votes.

But it probably won’t do much to reduce the incessant search for the next office. Nor will it do much to increase the right of voters to return effective members to office as long as they wish. It tweaks what had always been an anti-democratic idea. Along with the redistricting reform and the Top Two primary, it’s yet another bit of tinkering on a dysfunctional system that needs a lot more than marginal fiddles.

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Peter Schrag, whose exclusive weekly column appears every Monday in the California Progress Report, is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future and California: America’s High Stakes Experiment. His newest book, Not Fit for Our Society: Nativism, Eugenics, Immigration is now on sale. View his archived columns here.