California Elections Are Closer; So What?

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California's new election system -- with its top-two "primary" and redistricting by citizens' commission -- had a less than epic debut.

It produced expensive races, record low turnout (especially among the independent voters who were supposed to be empowered by it), and very little other change in California's broken election system.

But that hasn't stopped the backers of the redistricting and top-two reforms from declaring victory -- saying they are making progress, even in the face of the clear facts of the election. In recent days, backed by a study from the Public Policy Institute of California, they've been rolling out another talking point in defense of reforms:

That it made the elections closer.

Well, the margins in elections are closer. But it's a ridiculous argument for a couple of reasons.

First, it's an apples-and-oranges comparison. Top-two doesn't work like a partisan primary. Yes, PPIC did the best it could and took the vote totals from previous primary elections and put them into a top-two format. But the context is too different.

Simply put, those previous elections were primaries; the top-two isn't a primary. It's the first round of a general election.

Second, another factor in the closeness of this year's race also is turnout. Since the election produced record low turnouts, there were fewer votes. When you get fewer votes, guess what? The number of votes separating candidates often can be less.

It's very weird -- you might say "desperate" -- to argue that closer races are a boon, particularly in these circumstances. A low-turnout election with very close races could easily be seen another way: as a democratic failure.

Since most people don't vote (in California, four out of five of those eligible didn't vote), a close, low-turnout election increases the chances that the result would have been different if more people had voted.

But in the world of California good government reform, no failures are ever acknowledged.

Another point: very close elections are often not a good thing. They can create real problems for democratic legitimacy -- see Bush v. Gore.

The point of elections is not to have close contests. By that argument, is Russia more of a democracy, or less of a dictatorship, because Putin's last election margin wasn't nearly as high as previous ones?

And close contests are not a good measure of competition. At least the kind of competition that we want in elections -- which is the contest between ideas and governing plans that can be put into effect by the winners.

The point of elections is to engage the public by offering them real choices between officials and parties, who then have the power to rule.

California doesn't have legislation elections, or even a governing system, that produce elections like that. And the top-two and redistricting reform don't bring us any closer to having the kind of elections California needs.

Lead Prop Zero blogger Joe Mathews is California editor at Zocalo Public Square, a fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for Social Cohesion, and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (University of California, 2010).

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