California’s Primary Election Grand Experiment

2011 California Congressional Districts

After 2010 redistricting measure voted into law, California finally gets to take its new process for a test drive.

It’s Tuesday, June 5th, 2012 today.  It’s the day of the 2012 primary elections.  Welcome to the dawn of a new era in California electoral politics!  If you’re any kind of political junkie, and you’re a Californian, then this is a pretty exciting day.  It’s a historic day.  It’s the day when we finally get to peel the lid off the Petri dish and see if our experiment worked, and if so, how well.

Back in November, 2008, Californians took a stand.  Tired of the partisan bickering and the seemingly rigged elections every two years that all but guaranteed each major political party a set number of wins in the State Assembly and Senate races, California voters got a chance to chime in on a revolutionary new concept:  Instead of letting politicians and political parties squabble over where to draw voting district lines, we changed the system so that our State Assembly and Senate districts don’t get to come with predetermined winners based solely on political party affiliation.  In passing Prop 11, voters declared they’d had enough of the State Legislature gerrymandering the lines—twisting and contorting them—in an effort to create safe districts for their respective parties.

Instead, an independently selected group of 14 citizens—5 Democrats, 5 Republicans, and 4 “Decline to State”—would do it, and would do it based strictly on geography and population, incorporating natural boundaries whenever possible, and disregarding party registration altogether.  The idea was to make more competitive—and moderate—Assembly and Senate districts, and hopefully vote people into office who could trek to Sacramento and work together to conduct the state’s business in at least a somewhat less partisan manner.  It was also meant to more accurately reflect the political makeup of the state.

So how’d it work out?  We don’t quite know yet.  The California State Assembly is 2/3 Democrat, with the Senate falling one Democrat shy of reaching that same benchmark.  We can argue about how legislatively effective the results have been—California still has that ridiculous 2/3 majority requirement to pass any revenue raising legislation, and we still find it necessary to govern via ballot initiative because of it—but the truth is that the Legislature does accurately reflect the current political makeup of the state in general, where Democrats have a 43% to 30% registration advantage over Republicans overall.

In fact, Californians liked the concept so much that in 2010 they expanded the Citizen’s Redistricting Commission’s duties to include redrawing the state’s 53 Congressional districts as well with Prop 20.  The political parties in California would no longer be able to lock down their districts on a near permanent basis.  We would actually now face the very real possibility of Congressional seats turning from red to blue (or vice versa, as the case may be).

What we have is a grand experiment in bipartisan political redistricting.  And as this is the very first time we’re going to get to take our brand spanking new electoral system out cruising up Highway 1 with the top down in its fully operational glory, what we also have is the entire nation peering in to see how it works—some more intently than others.

California has a history of being a trendsetter.  From emissions standards to environmental quality acts to the tech boom, this state has provided many a litmus test for the rest of the country.  And why not?  We’re by far the biggest state in the Union by population.  California could easily make it as its own nation state (no, I’m not suggesting secession………yet).  If it works in California, chances are it will probably work everywhere else.

The most interesting aspect of the new California primary system is that the top two finishers—regardless of party affiliation—will advance to the November general election.  And we get to see those fireworks right off the bat!  More than once!  In the 30th District in the San Fernando Valley, two incumbent Democratic Congressmen were redrawn into the same district, and now must face off against each other, where the latest polls have Brad Sherman leading Howard Berman by just over seven percentage points.

The sparks continue with the 44th District race pitting Democrats Janice Hahn (who replaced Jane Harman after she retired last year) and Laura Richardson, both current sitting members of Congress.  Both will advance on to November.

And then there’s the 26th District in Thousand Oaks, which could send a Republican and an independent on to November.  It’s entirely possible that Democrat Julia Brownley will finish in third, leaving her out of the running despite a funding advantage over independent former Republican Ventura County Supervisor Linda Parks.

There are others.  Several others, like the 2nd District where Democrats Stacy Lawson and Jared Huffman are pacing the pack, each with over $1 million raised; and the 7th District where Dem challenger Ami Bera has outraised incumbent Republican Dan Lungren.

Despite the fact that by almost every account the redistricting process has been fair and equitable for all involved, it is still expected that California Democrats will pick up a handful of Congressional seats that were formerly held by Republicans.  That includes a far more competitive 52nd district in San Diego, where Brian Bilbray will face his toughest reelection test yet.

The purpose of the law was to attract more moderates into politics; to engage independents more—particularly independent voters, who often feel disenfranchised by the highly partisan two-party system.  And there is evidence that it’s working, with Republican candidates who have flatly rejected the Grover Norquist anti-tax pledge (once viewed as a must for any Republican political aspirant), and Democrats who have rankled organized labor.

Whether it works the way it was intended or not we won’t know for sure for another election cycle or two.  But it appears to be off to a very good start, with a greater emphasis being placed on attracting moderate voters than at any time in recent memory.  If it’s deemed a success, though, it could potentially change the face of electoral politics nationwide (except in the deep South, where, well, let’s face it:  They’re not all that interested in changing the way things currently work).


Andy Cohen

Andy spent 15 years working in the highest levels of the San Diego professional sports world, including both the Padres and the Chargers. He began his foray into writing while a volunteer for Francine Busby's 2010 Congressional campaign, eventually becoming a contributor to the now defunct SDNN. He has reported on local and national politics for both the OB Rag and the San Diego Free Press. When not reporting news and events, he offers political and policy commentary from a liberal perspective, occasionally turning back to his sports roots. While he does not hide his more liberal political bent, Andy always strives for fairness in the telling of a story.


  1. avatarjudi says

    Just curious, Andy. We had the one of the lowest turnouts – if not the lowest – for a primary election in California history. Do you think that the restricting had anything to do with that. Many of the names are new to the voters and we know how apathetic so many of them can be. What “test” will be used to see if the new system is a “success?”
    (Makes me wonder if the Saldana/Peters race is because of the more “moderate” voters.)