Next week the all-important California primary takes place. Most of the media attention, however, has not been on issues or candidates, but instead on the possible repercussions of the still relatively new top-two primary system. The worry among Democrats is that multiple Democratic candidates in some congressional districts will split the vote, allowing two Republicans to proceed to the November ballot. My colleague David Wasserman warns that Democrats are “at some risk of getting 'locked out' by the top-two primary in several key districts, particularly the 39th, 48th and 49th CDs."

But, while the focus is tightly aimed at June 5th, pull the lens out a bit, and you see that the top-two system is just another example of how electoral reforms have unintended consequences. In an ironic twist, voters are more skeptical of the parties than ever, yet behaving in ways that are more partisan than ever.

One of the best chroniclers of this loss of trust in our institutions and the breakdown of the two parties is Jon Ward of Yahoo News. His podcast, “The Long Game,” offers a fantastic mix of voices and perspectives on how we got to our current political state. 

At its core, Ward wrote recently, “while voters often see the parties as controlling politics, most reforms over the past half-century — with the Hunt Commission [which created the Democrats Superdelegate system] being one noteworthy exception — have reduced the power of the two political parties over and over. And many observers and experts believe the hollowing out of the parties and the suspicion of insiders and the establishment is a fundamental reason why American politics is so dysfunctional.”

The top-two primary is one such “reform” that was designed specifically to make an end run around the two parties. As the New York Times’ Los Angeles Bureau Chief Adam Nagourney describes it: “It was supposed to be a cutting-edge election reform, a way to take the party out of politics: an open primary in which labels like Republican and Democratic were tossed out and candidates were chosen, presumably, on their merits. The system, adopted by California voters in 2010, was meant to make politics less polarizing.”

Yet, politics in 2018 is as polarizing as ever. And, while plenty of voters tell reporters and pollsters that they vote for the “person, not the party,” the reality is that party label is a more determinative in their vote selection than they may appreciate. 

POLITICO captured this tension brilliantly. In the San Diego-based 49th district, where there are five Democratic candidates on the ballot, Mindy Martin, a 40-year-old business owner from Oceanside told a reporter that she was “frustrated that the party hasn’t helped ‘guide us to the best candidate,’ adding: ‘Isn’t that the role of the party?’”

Another critical role of the Democratic party in recent years has been to help cull and shape the presidential primary. Superdelegates, which were introduced into the Democratic nomination process after 1980 election, were put in place to help ensure that party leaders and elected officials could prevent a more extreme or damaged candidate from taking the nomination. Fast forward to 2008 and 2016 and superdelegates became synonymous with the ‘establishment’ stifling the voices of outsider and insurgent candidates. 

Last winter, the Unity Commission (created by the DNC at the 2016 convention to address frustration among Bernie Sanders supporters that the superdelegate process was ‘rigged’ on behalf of Clinton) recommended that superdelegates be reduced by more than half, from 15 percent of the total number of delegates to 7 percent. 

Personally, I think that the super-delegate ‘controversy’ was overblown. There is zero chance that superdelegates would ever deny the nomination to the candidate with the most delegates. Even so, this decision to reform the process could also increase the odds of a contested Democratic convention in 2020. Combine the Democrats system of proportional allocation of delegates, wrote David Byler, then of RealClearPolitics, now with the Weekly Standard, a crowded field of candidates, and a reduced number of unbound superdelegates, and “Democrats will have less power to prevent a multi-candidate fight. Those fights might have to be resolved by the candidates and delegates before or at the convention … In short, a reduction in the number and influence of super-delegates raises the odds of a contested Democratic convention in 2020.”

In 2016, Republicans also found that their primary system, which was designed to give an advantage to early frontrunners (i.e. establishment types with money, name ID, and insider support), failed to prevent the nomination of the ultimate outsider, Donald J. Trump. 

But, nothing has reduced the influence of the party like campaign finance reform. As outside group spending has soared, the role of the parties in helping to finance — and thus influence — candidates and campaigns has waned. During the last mid-term election, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, SuperPACs and 501(c)(4) spending totaled about $464 million — or about twice as much as party spending ($234 million).

While the 2010 Citizens United case is most often cited as the cause of the proliferation of outside group/billionaire spending, the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance law was just as, if not more, responsible. 

In a 2014 op-ed in the Washington Post, Robert K. Kelner, an election lawyer at Covington & Burling, and Raymond La Raja, a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, argue that “McCain-Feingold aimed to shore up confidence in the political system and reduce the role of big money in elections. It has done neither. Its promoters failed to recognize that party organizations are essential, especially during periods of intense competition for control of Congress. The U.S. political system is better served when partisan organizing takes place through the parties rather than through super PACs and other outside groups.”

“With or without Citizens United and McCutcheon,” write Kelner and LaRaja, “the legacy of McCain-Feingold is an electoral system awash in unaccountable soft money and polarizing campaigns.”

Reformers come to the table with the best of intentions. And, there is a lot that needs to be updated and reformed in our political system. But, they often downplay — or fail to recognize — the unintended consequences of their actions. While I agree that there is a lot wrong with the current two party structure, I also think that party leaders appreciate the diversity of their party in many ways that are not relished today, namely that a candidate and member of Congress should be rewarded for sticking with the district’s interests over the interests of the party. Reducing the influence of parties has not made us less partisan, but has helped to polarize us even more. 

Image: Candidates running for CA-39 at local candidate forum| Credit: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Cal


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