Prop 14: Change? Yes. Dramatic? Probably Not.

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It's still an awfully long way from the June election, where voters will be asked to revamp the system by which candidates for elected office are chosen by voters. But perhaps that's exactly the right time for some nonpartisan analysis of that proposal, a chance to ponder the proposal before the air is thick with campaign rhetoric.

And the bottom line in the new Public Policy Institute of California's examination of Proposition 14 is that the measure will probably help elect more moderates to the Legislature and Congress... but not so many that partisanship as we know it will disappear.

The author of the PPIC report, researcher Eric McGhee, put it this way: Prop 14 "would probably have a noticeable but modest effect on voting and representation in California."

First things first. While Prop 14 will be labeled as creating an "open primary," it's going to be more accurate... though clunky, I'll admit... to call it a "top two vote getter" primary, or TTVG as PPIC calls it (FYI, OK? Sorry couldn't resist.)

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Photo: Getty Images

The TTVG primary works as follows: all voters walk into their polling place on election day and get to cast a vote for any candidate for that legislative or congressional seat... regardless of the voter's party affiliation, or lack thereof. The two candidates receiving the most votes -- even if both come from the same party -- advance into a runoff election in November.

The reason this differs from the classic 'open primary' is because of this runoff aspect which could, in some regions of California, mean only Democrats or only Republicans (or other candidates) are on the November ballot -- and not candidates from all parties.

That's precisely the part of Prop 14 that's got just about every political party up in arms, both the majors and the minors. Expect to hear from them a lot in the months leading up to the June election that Prop 14 will destroy party preferences, minor party participation in politics (because it's likely the minor party candidates will not make it to the November runoff). Republicans have gotten an early start on the criticism, even arguing that taxes will go up in California (because, apparently, they think more Dems will win more elections). Earlier today, several Republicans in the state Senate disavowed their February budget vote that led to the measure being placed on the ballot... an effort led by fellow GOP Senator and now 'Lite Guv' nominee Abel Maldonado.

Supporters of Prop 14's top-two system, though, argue that when all voters get to consider all candidates in a primary, then candidates will have to play to the political 'middle' more often, thus creating an incentive for moderate politicians and pushing the must hyper-partisan pols aside... the same ones who currently dominate the Legislature and the state's congressional delegation.

Of course, this isn't a new idea. In fact, Californians rejected virtually this same system in 2004 when it appeared as Proposition 62. It was endorsed, but not campaigned for, by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. In fact, there was virtually no campaign for Prop 62. If the governor and his well-funded political operation gets behind Prop 14, though, things could turn out differently. After all, it was that very operation that probably helped drag the Proposition 11 redistricting plan across the goal line in 2006. And while the major parties may not like Prop 14, the question is are they willing to commit big bucks to a campaign to kill it -- while this busy election year may demand party dollars in all sorts of places?

Getty Images

Photo: Getty Images

But back the promise of creating more moderate lawmakers. Does that argument fly? Sort of, says the PPIC report. Researcher McGhee examined the evidence from California's last experiment with changing the primary elections -- the blanket primary system of the late 1990s that was thrown out in court -- as well as existing data from Washington state, which has the exact same system that Prop 14 would create.

McGhee finds that there would probably be a "slight advantage" to moderate candidates, and that there's some evidence that more voters will show up for a primary where everyone can vote for everyone.

But lest that sound like some magic fix to partisanship in the legislative process, the PPIC report concludes that Prop 14 won't make a fundamental change to the real skew in who wins elections: incumbency. To wit...

Voters might be drawn to candidates they like, but they will not cross over to support a candidate they have never heard of. This basic fact has important implications. Many voters cross over to support the incumbent because the incumbent is familiar, and still more cross over in order to participate in a competitive contest. Candidates with well-funded campaigns are generally better known and more competitive. One can presume, then, that disparities in campaign funding will continue to matter greatly under a [Prop 14] system.

Of course, McGhee notes that if a moderate newcomer should win office, then the power of incumbency might not be such a bad thing. "Even a small moderating effect might build over time," he writes, "as past moderate winners retain office and new ones arrive to join them."

In the end, the PPIC report surmises that what would really shake things up would be a true nonpartisan primary, where candidates aren't listed with any party affiliation. That's the system that exists in local races across California and existed through much of the 20th century in statewide races through the 'cross-filing' process.

But Prop 14 doesn't do that. And so the question for voters will be whether this goes far enough... or much to the shock of some reformers... they actually like party politics.

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia California Politics & Government Desk.  He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades -- serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and, most recently, as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.

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