Election 2014 in California: Where were the issues?

Californians may have just experienced the sleepiest election cycle in the state’s history. Only 30% of registered voters turned out; 40% of registered voters did not even know Governor Jerry Brown would be on the ballot for re-election.

The contest between Governor Brown (D) and his challenger, Neel Kashkari (R), had relatively low visibility. Ahead of the election, polls indicated that water and the economy were paramount for voters, while the gubernatorial race registered quite low.

Issues were not absent from the cycle altogether – they were just absent from what should have been the state’s central race. Instead, the administration and legislature punted on issues like state debt, budgeting challenges, water, and overcrowded prisons to the people as ballot propositions. Without San Jose mayor Chuck Reed’s previously anticipated pension measure on the ballot this cycle, the word “pension” was all but absent throughout the summer and fall. For voters, the policy consequences of their votes were probably clearer while voting for or against certain propositions on the ballot than they were while voting for Brown or Kashkari.

Issue-based voting is thought to rise with greater political polarization because when voters of different parties disagree more, issues help to differentiate candidates. However, California’s relatively new Top-Two primary system has the potential to offer more competitive and issue-based general elections without completely upending the party system. Top-Two sends the top two performing candidates from the primary to the general election, regardless of party affiliation.

This cycle, the most competitive statewide election was actually both issue-based and between two Democrats. The State Superintendent’s race between incumbent Tom Torlakson and Marshall Tuck attracted about $30 million dollars in direct contributions, independent expenditures, and issue advocacy ads – three times the amount the gubernatorial race attracted. It was also more substantive. Issues such as how the state is implementing the Common Core curriculum and the administration’s reaction to the Vergara v. California decision (which declared teacher tenure unconstitutional) attracted national attention to the race. Education reform advocates backed Tuck and public employee unions backed Torlakson. Reformers outspent the unions, but Torlakson ended up winning, with 52% of the vote.

We are now developing a clearer picture of what the Top-Two system may mean for California’s electoral politics. By opening the primary system, it may offer more voters more viable candidate options from the outset.

Voter turnout could be the critical factor in determining whether the Top-Two system generates meatier, issue-based elections. As the electorate and political players shape the system, abysmal voter turnout rates such as the 30% of registered voters this week and 25% of registered voters during the primaries will leave it even more vulnerable to capture by a single special interest. Ideally, voters would be active enough to capture the system for themselves and leave it open for interests to truly compete for their votes. Without broader participation, that reality will become less and less likely.

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