Would the dysfunction of U.S. politics be dispelled if we got rid of partisan primaries? That’s the contention of Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. In an op-ed for The New York Times, Schumer argued that the primary system in most states, in which voters choose nominees for their respective parties who then run head to head in November, gives too much weight to the party faithful, who are inclined to select candidates who veer either far right or far left. The cure Schumer proposes for this ill is the “jungle primary,” in which all primary candidates, regardless of party, appear on the same ballot, with the top two finishers, again regardless of party, advancing to the general election. The senator cites the example of California — once the most gridlocked of states, now a place where legislation actually gets enacted — as proof that such primaries work. But Schumer misunderstands what got California working again. In so doing, he also misses the fatal flaws of the jungle primary.
Before 2010, California government was inarguably paralyzed. State law required a two-thirds vote in each house of the legislature to pass a budget and raise taxes. Divided after the 2008 financial crash between Democrats who wanted to avoid draconian cutbacks and Republicans opposed to tax increases, the legislature failed to pass budgets. Support for colleges, health care and infrastructure plummeted, and the state was briefly compelled to pay its employees and contractors with IOUs.
In 2010, however, voters enacted a series of ballot initiatives that brought an end to Sacramento’s stagnation. They repealed the requirement that budgets needed a two-thirds vote for passage; no budget deliberations have exceeded the legal deadline since. They took redistricting for both congressional and legislative seats out of the hands of the legislature and handed it to a nonpartisan commission. And they enacted the jungle primary.
Of the two latter reforms, it was the nonpartisan redistricting, not the jungle primary, that returned the state to governability. The new districts, which were put in place in time for the 2012 election, no longer were carved to protect incumbents of either party. The effect of these changes, beyond eliminating some incumbents of both parties, was to create districts in which the rising number of Latino and Asian voters across the state gave the Democrats an edge — so much so that the party won a two-thirds majority in both legislative houses, enabling state government to raise revenue again.