Kamala Harris

Attorney General Kamala Harris speaks to California Democrats at the state party’s convention in May. Although the favorite to win a U.S. Senate race next year, she faces opposition from Rep. Loretta Sanchez, who could benefit from independent and Republican voters. (Damian Dovarganes/AP File)

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Dan Walters

By Dan Walters
dwalters@sacbee.com
November 30, 2015

  • California’s system has changed legislative dynamics
  • Could it also affect statewide races?
  • U.S. Senate contest will be a test

Six years ago, to pass a state budget, the Legislature’s Democratic leaders agreed to place a major change in primary election voting before voters.

They’ve regretted it ever since.

Proposition 14, approved by voters in 2010, is a “top-two” primary system in which all candidates appear on the same ballot in June and the two highest vote-getters, regardless of party, face each other in November.

Its practical effect has been that in some legislative districts, two Democrats wind up in runoffs, thus allowing Republican and independent voters to tip the balance in favor of the less liberal of the two.

Over the past two election cycles, the system – coupled with redistricting by an independent commission – helped create a bloc of moderate, business-friendly Democrats in the Assembly, and is beginning to have the same effect in the Senate.

The bloc has dealt big setbacks to liberal groups – and even Gov. Jerry Brown – in their legislative agendas.

So the top-two system is working as its supporters intended at the legislative level. But could it have the same impact in statewide elections?

Democrats dominate those elections, and that’s not about to change. But the top-two system could come into play under the right circumstances: two viable Democrats running against one another with weak Republican candidates.

And that, political scientist John Pitney believes, could happen next year in California’s only statewide contest, filling the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Barbara Boxer.

To read expanded column, click here.