For voters who spent decades – even lifetimes – trying to understand the rules for elections in California, the last four years of a new system have been a jarring jumble of candidates and choices. The seismic shock responsible: an overhaul of the rules for congressional and legislative primaries. That change, promised as a way to reform state politics, tore down election rules that had been built by political parties to give a leg up to their preferred candidates. What’s left is a system that’s far from settled, for either voters or candidates. “It has no doubt upped the uncertainty factor,” said Dave Gilliard, a Republican political consultant who managed several legislative races across California on Tuesday’s ballot. As many as two dozen races for the Legislature or Congress will pit same-party candidates against each other on Nov. 8, according to early returns from Tuesday. In most of those contests, it was outside money and the number of candidates on the primary ballot – not political strategy – that shaped the outcome.
Urged along by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, voters approved a top-two primary system in 2010. In many ways, the change was liberating: Voters of all persuasions choose from a single list of candidates, no matter the party. The two who receive the most votes, even if they are from the same party, move on to the general election in November.
Schwarzenegger boasted at the time that the new system “would change the political landscape in California, finally giving the voters the power to hold politicians truly accountable.” Testing any new level of accountability is difficult. Easier, though, is assessing its effect on campaigns.