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California's top-two primary reexamined as US Senate race fails to stir voters

From left to right: Duf Sundheim, Kamala Harris, Loretta Sanchez, Ron Unz, Tom Del Beccaro at a debate at KPBS in San Diego, May 10, 2016.
Milan Kovacevic/KPBS
From left, Duf Sundheim, Kamala Harris, Loretta Sanchez, Ron Unz, and Tom Del Beccaro at a debate at KPBS in San Diego, May 10, 2016.

Californians get to choose between two Democrats in the race for U.S. Senate, but if you're not yet sure who you'll vote for, you're not alone.

A series of recent polls found many voters are uncertain about who should fill the seat of Sen. Barbara Boxer, who is retiring. The Field Poll released last week reported "an unusually large proportion of voters" — 26 percent of likely voters surveyed — remain undecided in the race.

In a further blow to voter engagement, the poll found another 12 percent, mostly Republicans, said they planned to skip the race and not cast a vote.

The results track similar poll findings from the Public Policy Institute of California and California Counts, a collaboration of four public media organizations that includes KPCC.

The U.S. Senate race represents the first major test of the state's top-two primary system where the first and second place vote-getters advance from the primary to the general regardless of their party affiliation.

None of the Republicans who ran in the primary cracked the top two spots. Thus, two Democrats, Orange County Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez and state Attorney General Kamala Harris, are facing off for the first open California Senate seat in decades.

The race has been a relatively quiet affair. Sanchez has ramped up attacks against her opponent in recent weeks. Her issues include whether Harris did enough to protect consumers after charges that the nutrition company Herbalife misled people about its supplements and engaged in deceptive sales practices.

The company recently agreed to a $200 million settlement and changes to its practices, after the Federal Trade Commission alleged some distributors lost thousands of dollars while others made no money at all.

So far, none of the barbs tossed by Sanchez appear to have stuck and Harris is routinely beating her in the polls. 

The candidates have settled on only one debate for the general election sponsored by KABC on Oct. 5, further limiting the opportunities for voters to get to know the candidates.

Voters like Los Angeles resident Roy Orecchio have yet to make a choice between the two. 

"I’m a little bit undecided, really. To me, they seem very similar. I need to discern, like, what separates them out as candidates," he said. "It’s really strange. It’s almost like no one is talking about it."

California adopts top-two primary

In 2010, voters approved Proposition 14, a measure called the "Top Two Candidates Open Primary Act." The top-two system applies to congressional races and state elective offices.

Supporters of the proposition said the new system would result in more moderate candidates advancing to a runoff. Opponents predicted minor and independent parties would be hurt by the process.

Political watchers have observed that since 2010, California candidates have been appealing to a broader ideological audience rather than relying on traditional party backers.

Sanchez, for one, has reached outside her Democratic base to conservative and Republican voters, emphasizing her experience serving on military congressional committees and her hardline stands on national security issues.

Despite such attempts to rev up interest in the race, many voters appear to be unstirred and tuning out. 

Jennifer Duffy, who has studied Senate races for decades at The Cook Political Report, said just three states have adopted some version of the top-two system for U.S. Senate races and California’s is unique. Louisiana has an option for run-off elections after all candidates regardless of party compete in the general election. In Washington state, the process is similar to California, except candidates don't have to state their political party on the ballot. 

In many ways, according to Duffy, the competition for the Senate seat is already behind voters under the state's top-two system. "Really, the most important day became primary day," she said.

In the U.S. Senate race, voters advanced two Democrats who aren’t markedly different on many major issues. That’s made for an uneventful, low interest campaign.

Duffy said it may take time for voters to realize that it’s the primary that now counts.

"It is a new system for voters and I think one of the things voters are going to need to train themselves to do is become pretty diligent primary voters," Duffy said.

But in California, candidates often struggle to get the attention of voters in primary elections or in races other than the presidential contests.

"There are strategic reasons that you might pick one over the other, but for a lot of people who can't get especially motivated about down ballot races, it means that they're sort of turned off by the whole thing," said Kim Nalder a professor of government at California State University, Sacramento.

If this apathy holds up, it's not a positive development for voter engagement in California, where turnout has been particularly low during primary elections. 

On the other hand, as voters get used to the top-two system, they may agree with Nalder that those who show up on primary day get more of a say in who makes it to the general election. And that shift could improve primary turnout.

"The people who do turn out [during California's primaries] tend to be more committed, and more partisan and more attentive," she said. "The larger group of people who will be in that general electorate are missing out on the chance to really determine what the outcome is likely to be."

These developing issues with top two have left even political veterans re-examining the system.

Michael Soller, California Democratic Party communications director, said he’s not sure the top-two system is playing out in the way it was originally sold to voters.

"Sponsors of the top-two primary promised that California would see an increase in voter engagement and we’d see a real contest of ideas, and we’ve had the opposite," Soller said.

State Republicans are even more blunt: for many, the new system has left them without a clear choice in the U.S. Senate race.

"Count me in the unenthusiastic/undecided category at this time," said Harmeet Dhillon, the RNC’s National Committeewoman from California. She said she hasn’t settled on whether to vote for Sanchez, who’s been trying to appeal to Republicans, or skip the race entirely.

"The people who I speak to are hardcore party activists and zero of them are enthusiastic about voting for Loretta Sanchez as, quote-unquote, lesser of the two evils," Dhillon said.

Sanchez has gained some support from across the aisle: Congressman Darrell Issa from the 49th congressional district endorsed her earlier this month. Issa has also endorsed Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. 

The next major statewide test of the top-two system will come during the 2018 governor’s race when Gov. Jerry Brown will be termed out.