Get Your Election Results Right Here!
by Steven Hill
On June 2 California will join Washington state and try the open "blanket" primary for a change. Many have high hopes that the open primary will do something positive for California's politics, including giving voters more choices, competition, and - the ultimate test - increasing voter interest and turnout.
But a new study by the non-partisan Center for Voting and Democracy may give us some insight into what difference the open primary will make in legislative races. And the answer may be: not much.
In its study, our Center looked at results in past state Assembly races, and compared that to the results in the past governor's race by Assembly district. By doing that, we are able to predict this November's winners for 63 out of 80 (79%) of state Assembly races. What's more, we are able to predict lopsided "landslide" wins (with margins of 20 points or higher) in 42 out of 80 (52%) Assembly races.
If we are able to make these predictions with great confidence a week before the open primary and five months before the general election, how much of a difference can an open primary make?
All the talk of how California's new open primary will give voters' more choice and create more competitive elections overlooks one glaring fact. Most Assembly districts will never be competitive because a clear majority of voters in these districts prefer one political party over the other.
Either because of partisan gerrymandering -- whereby the politicians pick the voters before the voters pick them -- or due to the dynamics of single-seat "winner take all" races that force voters into one of two camps, Democrat or Republican, demography is often destiny.
Among the Center's findings: Democrats will win 25 seats by a landslide (a margin of 20 points or higher) and 9 more seats by a comfortable margin of 10 points or more. The Democrats have a good shot at also winning five more seats by less than a five point spread, amounting to 49% of seats.
The Republicans will win 17 seats by a landslide and 12 seats by a comfortable 10 point margin. Six more seats will probably go Republican by five points or less, amounting to 43% of seats.
Only six Assembly races are too close to call. Yet these six seats may determine whether the Assembly goes Democratic or Republican, and that's where great gobs of money are most likely to be spent. Those six seats are in Assembly districts 26, 44, 54, 56, 69 and 78.
What this also means, unfortunately, is that the voters in only six districts will see exciting races that are hotly contested, with the voters in 11 more districts perhaps having a possibility to see something unexpected and exciting. But for the voters in the other 79% of California's state Assembly districts, the elections are already over.
There's nothing to get jazzed about, because those districts are too noncompetitive to cause any surprises. This fact directly impacts voter enthusiasm and turnout. The Center's previous studies have shown that, not surprisingly, voter turnout drops as the degree of competition decreases in legislative races. It's a pity for the voters.
So, unfortunately for voters, it's "No-Choice" elections again. The open primary changes little, at least for most legislative races.
The comprehensive report, called Monopoly Politics, explains how and why the great majority of Assembly and U.S. House elections in California and the rest of the United States will be noncompetitive in 1998. "Monopoly Politics" also predicts the 1998 winners for all 435 U.S. House elections. It lists the 75 out of 435 seats that are truly up for grabs, including in California, with up to two thirds of total congressional seats predicted to be won by landslides, and over half won by "untouchable" incumbents -- incumbents who repeat their 1996 landslide victories in 1998.
Using the same method, the Center last October listed 219 "untouchable" incumbents: all were re-elected, 209 won landslides and only three won by less than 10%.
Monopoly politics is no way to run a democracy. No wonder most voters lose interest, when their vote counts for so little. Various reforms should be made to the redistricting process to make our legislative races more competitive. Now is the time to begin this discussion, since the next round of redistricting is scheduled for 2001.
Steven Hill is the West Coast Director of the Center for Voting and Democracy, a nonprofit organization based in Washington DC that educates about voting systems.