Neither devoted Republicans nor dedicated Democrats are happy about one obvious message of this month’s election: At least in California, there’s no need at all to choose or join a political party.
This message came across in several ways. For one thing, the two Republican candidates for statewide office who refused to endorse their party’s candidate for governor both did far better than all other GOP candidates for major office. For another, the two-year-old “top two” primary election system gave Republicans a decisive voice in the many districts where Democrats so dominate that GOP voters previously didn’t have influence. The same for Democrats in the few districts where the tables are turned and Republicans dominate.
Party stalwarts hate this, because it has already demonstrated a moderating influence on legislators and members of Congress, and the leaders of both major parties tend to be extremists of left and right. It is likely no coincidence that that the two Republicans who ran strongest – Pepperdine University Prof. Pete Peterson for secretary of state and Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin for controller – were the most moderate statewide candidates their party offered this year.
Small party adherents also despise top two, because it has essentially taken their candidates off the November ballot. Libertarians, Greens and others have the same shot anyone else does in the primary, but if they’re not one of the top two vote-getters then, they are forced to the sidelines for the rest of each election year.
And why not? If they demonstrate sufficient appeal to voters in the primary, they’ll be fine in the fall. If they don’t, they won’t be elected later anyhow and would merely clutter both the ballot and any debates that might be held along the way.
Another central feature of top two is that voters have no need to affiliate with either party at any time unless they hope someday to win political office themselves. There is no longer any public office or proposition on any ballot for which people declaring no party preference cannot vote.
It’s plain from the latest voter registration statistics that voters are increasingly aware of all this. Just before Election Day, 517,000 more Californians were registered than four years ago.
But while Democratic registration was actually up slightly, by about 87,000, Republican rolls were down by almost 356,000. Where did the new voters and the former Republicans go? Most went to the no party preference column, up almost 650,000 and to smaller parties like the Greens, Libertarians, American Independents and Peace and Freedom, whose membership rose a combined 115,000. Belonging to a fringe party also no longer limits anyone’s ability to participate, as it previously did.
The numbers show a marked acceleration of a trend toward voter independence that began in the late 1990s, but only advanced slowly before top two. Now more than 23 percent of all California voters decline to choose a party, double the 1998 figure and almost as many as call themselves Republicans (28.1 percent).
All the parties hate this, and are again contesting top two in court, this time challenging a similar Arizona system. So far, the California plan has withstood court challenges, but no one can be sure about Arizona.
Which means the just-concluded vote could have been the last one under this system.
The major parties would love that, of course, as they despised the way 24 legislative races and several Congressional contests this fall pitted party mates against each other. The intra-party competition made some districts that were previously among the most one-sided into serious, unpredictable battlegrounds.
“You no longer have a choice between hamburger and fish on the political menu,” griped one activist. “
It turns out to be a healthy one.