5 California Election Stories Worth Watching

With voting already under way in the June primary elections in California, what should the politically interested keep their eye on?

Here are the five top questions that should be on the minds of Californians as they read the election news:

1. Can evil triumph?

Prop 29, the cigarette tax to fund cancer research, is an interesting test of the people’s views on taxes and budget policy.

Prop 29 goes after an evil interest group – tobacco companies – with a tax that makes policy sense, but uses the money to fund a complicated series of funds, with none of the money going to the broken budget or starved social programs.

The way the money is spent has caused some liberals and goo goos to side with the tobacco companies on this one.

The right is looking at the vote as a test of how difficult it may be to beat tax measures on the November ballot.

A defeat for Prop 29 might be good for budget policy now – but bad in the long-term, if it’s seen as a verdict on taxes.

2. In how many legislative districts will the top two finishers in the primaries be members of the same political party?

Other than Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim baseball slugger Albert Pujols, no recent arrival in California has been more hyped than the top-two primary system, also sometimes called the open primary.

Under the top two, every candidate in legislative races will be on the same ballot, regardless of party. The top two finishers in the primary election advance to the general, again regardless of party.

The motivation for the top two was to create more moderate legislators who would be more willing to compromise.

But the top two primary only works that way in districts where two members of the same party advance beyond the primary. In the general, those two members would presumably fight over the votes of independents and the other party, producing a more moderate winner.

Skeptics, including your blogger, don’t believe that many districts are partisan enough to produce a top two of the same party, making this a weak reform.

Supporters of the idea, however, are predicting that dozens of districts will go this direction. We will now see.

3. Is two-thirds within reach for the Democrats?

California’s Democrats have been reluctant to push reform of the supermajority-based system of fiscal governance – in part because they believe that the easier path would be to elect a supermajority of the legislature.

Securing 2/3 of lawmakers would give the party the ability to raise revenues without Republican votes.

There is considerable hope among Democrats that this may happen this year.

But the picture is cloudy, in part because of the new top-two primary. Prognosticating the Democrats’ chances of 2/3 will become much easier after these primaries.

4. Will San Jose fall into the Bay?

A big vote on changes to pension for city workers is on the ballot. It’s drawn national publicity, and inspired nasty campaigns for and against.

The outcome is likely to be taken as a sign of whether pension rollbacks are possible statewide in California (note that Democratic leaders have delayed promised action on pensions changes until after this vote takes place).

5. Will San Diego fall into the sea?

San Diego has its own nasty pension battle (albeit about a pension reform that doesn’t save any money).

There’s also a deliciously tough mayor race that’s getting national ink, because of candidate Nathan Fletcher’s defection from the Republican Party. These are tough times in America’s Finest City.

But rest assured that no matter how tough the politics gets, the weather will still be great after June 5.

I think.

Lead Prop Zero blogger Joe Mathews is California editor at Zocalo Public Square, a fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for Social Cohesion, and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (University of California, 2010).

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