California is the closest thing we have to a political lab for engineering a solution for the country's voter apathy problem. From permanent absentee voting to term limits and redistricting reform and now a top-two primary system, California has tried just about every remedy imagined to help boost voter participation in the state. The result: turn-out in the Golden State last year for both the primary and general election was the lowest it has been in recorded history. Did reform fail? Was it a failure of candidates themselves? Or is there something more that California's lack of voter interest can tell us about why/how reforms to voting systems impact actual voting behavior?
At a conference organized by the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California at Berkeley - called California Votes 2014 - some of the smartest and most plugged-in political professionals in the state tried to diagnose the state's lack of interest in the 2014 election.
Before we get to the question of why voters didn’t turn out, it’s notable that California’s low turn-out election didn’t bring Republicans the success they found in other parts of the country last year. Democrats actually swept all seven of the Golden state's partisan offices and picked up one seat in the House. The joke out in California is that the GOP wave of 2014 stopped at the foot of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Some have attributed this to the younger and more diverse (i.e, heavily Hispanic) electorate. But, the Latino turn-out was just 15 percent - 4 points less than it was in 2012. And, young people didn’t show up either.
Instead, the answer lies in the fact that white voters in the state voted more Democratic than white voters nationally. While just 39 percent of white voters nationally supported a Democrat in 2014, 51 percent of California's white voters supported a Democrat. And, according to Marc DiCamillo of the well-respected Field Poll, white voters who live in counties that touch the coast were even more Democratic. About 70 percent of the vote in the state comes from coastal counties and in those counties, says DiCamillo, Democrats took 56 percent of the white vote. The inland counties, meanwhile, behaved much more like the rest of the nation as just 38 percent of white voters supported a Democrat.
Republicans also can't find much comfort in the growing ranks of the independent (or no-party-preference voters) in the state. Political Data Inc.'s Paul Mitchell noted that the state's independent voters are "not middle of the road voters." They are more left leaning, younger and more Latino. In 2014, California independent voters gave Democrats 61 percent of the vote. Nationally, independent voters broke overwhelmingly for Republicans - 56 percent to 44 percent.
These are the sorts of numbers that should make any Republican thinking of running statewide – either for the open Senate seat in 2016 or the governorship in 2018 - serious pause
So, then there’s the question of why voters failed to turn-out to vote, despite the fact that the state has done lots to incentivize voting. On the one hand, it’s easy enough to say that it’s simply a matter of a boring top of the ticket race that generated little light or heat. Gov. Jerry Brown was popular, his GOP opponent was virtually unknown, and voters in the state had little incentive to get out and vote.Competitive House races also saw a big drop in turn-out from 2012, and in some cases, a drop from 2010. So, if top-two and better redistricting didn’t get people to vote, should we assume they’ve failed?
Obviously, we have to be careful about using just two election cycles as a statistical basis for anything. But, there are some signs that the top-two is both increasing competitiveness, while also doing little to shake up the establishment. Eric McGhee of the Public Policy Institute of California found that since the arrival of the top-two primary system in 2012 there has been more intra-party competition. From 2002-2010, an average of 18 percent of incumbents faced an intra-party challenge. From 2012-2014, that average was 35 percent. The redistricting year of 2012 skews the overall average (that year 42 percent of incumbents were challenged). But, in 2014, you still saw more intra-party challenges - 28 percent of incumbents had a primary – than you did in the pre-top two era.
Even so, this competitiveness hasn’t upended the system. No House incumbent failed to make the November ballot or lost to an intra-party challenger in 2014. According to Courtni Pugh of Hilltop Public Strategies, 96 percent of all Democratic party endorsed candidates made it to the November ballot. In other words, the endorsement of the party is as, or even more important than ever.
Even more sobering was PPIC’s McGhee's presentation showing that the top-two has done little to “moderate” the legislature. First, McGhee cited research done by the Institute of Governmental Studies' Jack Citrin, Doug Ahler, and Gabe Lenz that found that voters were unable to identify the moderates in an intra-party primary, even when the ideologically differences between the candidates were stark. There’s also no evidence that the candidates are making it easy for voters to make that distinction – or that it matters to primary voters.
Finally, and most importantly, while there are clear signs of moderation in the California legislature, it's also true that this moderation had been happening before the implementation of the top-two system in 2010. Since 2007, finds McGhee, Democrats in the state have been gradually moving to the center. Republicans, meanwhile, remain as conservative as ever.
But, perhaps the best explanation for why the top-two and redistricting may not be shaking up the system as much as reformers would like to see is much simpler: voters don’t think voting matters. Courtni Pugh, a Democratic strategist and former labor organizer recounted sitting in focus groups of Latino voters who wondered “how does me voting in this election better my life?”
The fact that voters are increasingly detached from policymaking is a deeper and more significant problem. It’s not that there’s a problem with the system of voting. The problem is the system itself. If people don't trust that the politicians are going to look out for them or understand their day-to-day lives, no amount of change to the way we vote is going to get people to vote.
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