June 11, 2012

WISCONSIN WAS THE understandable focus of political attention last week, but intriguing things happened in California as well. Tuesday’s primaries were the Golden State’s first since voters approved twin election reforms in 2010. First, boundaries for congressional districts and the state legislature were drawn by a nonpartisan redistricting commission, rather than by the legislature. Second, all primary candidates were combined on a single ballot; the top two vote-getters, regardless of party affiliation, will face off in November’s general election. The hope of these changes was to make races more competitive and winners less extreme and more accountable to voters.

The results, as had been predicted, were not revolutionary. But they show the value of both reforms.

Residential clustering along ideological lines — Democrats tend to live near Democrats, and Republicans near Republicans — limits the impact of nonpartisan redistricting. Yet California incumbents, both in the state legislature and Congress, faced a more competitive environment than in the past. Incumbents were forced to run against each other in two congressional districts, and there were the largest number of open congressional seats — nine — since 1992. The real test of redistricting’s impact will come in November, when it will be seen whether the sclerotic nature of California politics — only one congressional seat changed party hands from 2002 through 2010 — remains in force.

In the meantime, the new “top-two” primary system upended the status quo even more. The theory of top-two is that, rather than having to run in a partisan primary in which candidates must appeal to the most active — and extreme — party supporters, politicians will focus on attracting voters of all persuasions. This system, also in place in Washington state and Louisiana, is not without drawbacks: It can make races more costly, block smaller parties from having any shot at the fall ballot and increase the influence of special interests at the expense of political parties.

Still, the combined impact of new districts and the new voting system appeared to produce both more competitive races and closer outcomes. According to a post-election analysis by the Public Policy Institute of California, more state legislative and congressional races featured competition within parties. In particular, more incumbents faced primary challenges from within their parties than in elections past.

The change was not huge. All incumbents who ran made it past the top-two hurdle and into the fall campaign, with all but four finishing in first place. But the most intriguing result was to produce 28 same-party runoffs, including in nine of the state’s 53 congressional districts. These are almost all safe districts for one party, meaning that the November vote holds the prospect of injecting some ideological diversity into otherwise sure-bet elections.

The outlier — and the result that calls for some pause — came in the 31st Congressional District, which has more registered Democrats than Republicans and which President Obama won in 2008. Democrats had hoped for a shot at the seat, but with the Democratic field divided, two Republicans, Rep. Gary Miller and Bob Dutton, topped the primary and qualified for the general election. The shutout of Democrats raises the question of whether the law should be tweaked to allow write-in candidates. But as a general matter, these were reforms well worth trying — and watching in November and beyond.