Dan Walters

Dan Walters
By Dan Walters
dwalters@sacbee.com
August 4, 2015

  • Squeeze play changed the California primary
  • Top vote-getters now face each other
  • It’s had moderating effect, but isn’t a cure-all

California’s “top-two” primary election system emerged from one of the oddest events in the state’s political history.

In 2009, Republican state Sen. Abel Maldonado withheld his vote on a state budget that included new taxes until legislative leaders promised, with obvious reluctance, to put the landmark election change on the ballot.

Then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was Maldonado’s co-conspirator in the squeeze play, with major business groups and some political reformers in the background.

They hoped it would crack the Legislature’s ideological gridlock by allowing more moderates – such as Maldonado – to win more seats.

Schwarzenegger later rewarded Maldonado by appointing him lieutenant governor, but his political career stalled. Republican hard-liners never forgave him for voting for taxes, fellow Latinos shunned him for being a Republican, and Democrats, who had the most to lose from top-two, were openly hostile.

Voters, however, adopted the new system in 2010, and we’ve had two election cycles under its provisions. All candidates are listed on the same June primary ballot and the top-two vote-getters, regardless of party, run off in the November general election.

Backers say it gives independent voters and those from parties without runoff candidates more clout, making election of very liberal or very conservative legislators less likely, and of moderates more likely.

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