As political pundits analyze the effects of two new voter-approved election changes, we see Rep. Pete Stark's current struggle for re-election as an excellent example of why open primaries and redistricting reform were positive changes.
Despite his childlike behavior and being marginalized by members of his own party in Washington, the 80-year-old incumbent has retained his seat for 40 years with little serious electoral opposition -- until this year.
Thanks to two recent initiatives, the district boundaries for this year's elections were drawn by an independent citizens' redistricting commission, and this month's new open primaries meant all candidates appeared on the same ballot regardless of party affiliation.
Stark, who had enjoyed a district with a party registration advantage of 54 percent Democrats to 17 percent Republican, had to run in a slightly more moderate region with a 48-23 split.
Much more significantly, the new open-primary rules require that the two top primary finishers face each other in November, even if they're from the same party. In this case, that means that Stark will face fellow Democrat Eric Swalwell, an Alameda County prosecutor and Dublin councilman with more centrist political leanings, in the general election.
Under the old rules, Stark probably would have won the Democratic Party primary and then easily walked to victory in November against a Republican opponent who didn't have a prayer.
But with Stark facing a November general election challenge from a fellow Democrat, the two will split the vote from members of their party. As a result, Republican and independent voters will help determine the outcome.
It means that Stark will not be able to campaign on the political left wing if he hopes to win re-election. He will have to consider voters he has been able to ignore in the past. Stark barely edged Swalwell in June, 42 percent to 36 percent, with independent candidate Chris Pareja garnering 22 percent.
With Pareja eliminated from the second round, we expect his voters will be much more comfortable with Swalwell than Stark. (We endorsed Swalwell for the June election and we will recommend his election in November.) In other words, the incumbent congressman will have to campaign extremely hard if he has any hope of holding his seat.
Stark knows it. In the primary, he made desperate and outrageous charges about Swalwell that he was forced to retract. If Stark continues such appalling tactics, he will almost certainly lose.
As data from the Public Policy Institute of California shows, the new redistricting and open-primary rules produced more open seats with no incumbents and more challenges to sitting lawmakers from members of their own party. It remains to be seen whether we end up with a less politically polarized state Legislature and more moderate members of Congress as a result.
But incumbents like Pete Stark will no longer be able to ignore a significant portion of their constituents. For that reason alone, so far, we like what we see.