Loch Ness has its monster. The Pacific Northwest has Bigfoot. And elections have their own mythic creature, feared though seldom seen, who lurks large in the fevered imaginations of candidates, would-be pundits and some paranoid partisans. It’s the mischief-making crossover voter. In the popular telling, masses of cunning Democrats and Republicans stand ready and eager to wade into the opposition’s primary, itching to cast a calculated ballot for the weakest possible candidate, thence to be defeated in November. That sort of meddling is cited by opponents of so-called open primaries — which allow voters to cast ballots for whomever they please, regardless of party — as a reason to limit participation to those of their political affiliation. It’s also heard now and then as the reason why a certain candidate lost; last year, after the out-of-nowhere defeat of Rep. Eric Cantor in his Virginia primary, some credited (or blamed) the interference of crossover Democrats, who supposedly targeted the No. 2 House Republican. All of which is a lot of hooey.
Extensive research in California, a proving ground for various voting permutations over the last two decades, shows that that type of electoral sabotage is just about as prevalent as black-lagoon creatures bidding for a seat on the City Council.
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The most recent work grows out of a study of California’s top-two primary, a change intended to bring moderation to Sacramento and the state’s congressional delegation by pitting the leading vote-getters in a November runoff. (In brief, the study said it was too soon to draw definitive conclusions but suggested voters would have to be more engaged and attentive for the change to work as supporters hoped.)
As part of his research, New York University’s Jonathan Nagler focused on California’s 2012 Assembly races and a survey of 2,500 registered voters. He found an exceedingly low rate of crossover balloting: Just 5.5% of Democrats voted for a Republican candidate and 7.6% of Republicans supported a Democrat.