Jonathan Bernstein writes at Bloomberg View about California’s “Top Two Primary” on Tuesday. California’s Election Calamity:
California voters are set to vote in their primary on Tuesday, and will suffer the consequences of a serious self-imposed mistake in how they run their state. No, it has nothing to do with the presidential race. The disaster is its “top two” system, in which the candidates for state offices — regardless of party — go on to compete in the general election in November if they finish first and second in the primaries.
The likely perverse result? Voters in November will probably have a choice between two Democrats for an open U.S. Senate seat.
The motivation for the California system was to elevate more moderate politicians than the parties were producing on their own. In practice, at least in the first two election cycles since the change was carried out, the results have not matched reformers’ hopes. Candidates have not been more moderate.
In part, that’s because the parties have adapted: They made more formal endorsements before the June first-round election. This is consistent with a theme that political scientist Seth Masket has emphasized in his research: Political parties are resilient, and react to regulation by finding new ways to control their nomination.
The current Senate race illustrates the problem. Current polling has Democrat Kamala Harris at 29 percent, Democrat Loretta Sanchez in second with 20 percent and Republican Tom Del Beccaro third at just 8 percent. In other words, if the polls hold up, two traditional Democrats will survive the first round and face off in November.
How did this happen? Of the 34 (!) candidates on the ballot, Harris, California’s attorney general, and Sanchez, a U.S. representative for almost 20 years, are the best known. There is no clear separation among the 12 Republicans. In part, that’s because Republicans failed to recruit a strong candidate, but it’s also because it’s hard to emerge from a pack of 12. Had three strong Democrats chosen to run, they would have split the Democratic vote, and a Republican might have wound up advancing.
In this particular race, at least Californians will wind up electing a senator most of them support. But we’ve seen the opposite result too: In one Democratic-leaning U.S. House district in 2012 in Southern California, several Democratic candidates split the vote, and two Republican candidates wound up advancing to the final round — leaving the majority of the district without a candidate to vote for.
There’s more. Unlike Louisiana, which has a somewhat similar system but holds the initial vote on Election Day in November (with a runoff after that if needed), California holds its first round in June. This is months before most voters are focused on elections, meaning turnout is far lower for that election than for the final one. In 2014, 4.3 million people cast votes in June compared with 7.3 million in November.
Even worse is that, this year, the first-round election for the U.S. Senate and House, California Legislature and other offices takes place in the same June 7 election as the (partisan) presidential primary. This will likely favor Democrats because Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are still in a contest for their party’s nomination, while Donald Trump has already sealed the deal on the Republican side. Turnout will likely be a lot higher on the Democratic side than among Republicans.
Granted, Democrats would almost certainly have won the U.S. Senate election under normal rules. But at least voters would have had a choice in November. And Republicans would have had an active effort to get their vote out, a drive that could matter a lot in some other races down the ballot. Since Trump and the Republicans are unlikely to make any effort in California for the general election, since it is solidly Democratic, and since the two Senate candidates are likely to be Democrats, Republicans will be at a significantly worse disadvantage in November than usual.
It’s an unfair and flat-out foolish system.
David Atkins at the Political Animal Blog recently wrote, GOP Tries to Game California’s Jungle Primary by Using Deceptive Dirty Tricks Against Democratic Voters:
[I]n 2010 California voters enacted Proposition 14, which eliminated partisan primaries in all but the presidential race. What this means is that in every single race from governor to congressmember to assemblymember, candidates of all parties are jumbled together on a single primary ballot. Candidates are not even required to list a party affiliation on the ballot. The top two vote getters in the primary—even if they’re both from the same party—then advance to the general election.
This has been a terrible idea for many reasons: reformers tried to take power away from the political parties but ultimately ended up strengthening the hands of institutional power brokers and subverting the will of constituents. But the worst unintended consequence is that under certain circumstances, a general election can be fought between two candidates of a party with minority political representation in a district. This has happened several times now, and most famously occurred in California’s 31st district, a heavily Democratic district in which two Republicans advanced to the general election due to Democratic voters splitting their votes among four other Democrats on the primary ballot (and it almost happened again two years later.)
This year, the congressional district with the biggest danger of repeating that phenomenon is California’s 24th (where I happen live.) With Democratic congresswoman Lois Capps retiring, the primary race is between four Democrats and three Republicans. Of these, three of the Democrats and two of the Republicans are what we might call serious candidates with actual campaigns.
Among the Democrats, the one with by far the most local support from both the progressive and establishment wings is 1st district supervisor Salud Carbajal. None of the other three Democrats in the race are likely to approach his vote total. However, due to low overall June turnout (especially from key liberal constituencies) and the vote split among Democrats, it is entirely possible that the two leading Republicans could receive more votes and advance to the general election in this majority Democratic district.
Enter the California Republican Party. The CRP knows that it stands a slim chance of winning this seat in an honest election in November, so they’re playing dirty tricks on progressive Democrats instead, trying to cut down on Carbajal’s vote totals by pushing Democrats toward other candidates with deceptive mailers.
It’s not just the California Republicans. The NRCC is also in this game, with a deceptive TV ad “hitting” another rival Democrat Schneider for wanting universal healthcare and an end to offshore drilling. RL Miller of Climate Hawks Vote (which has endorsed Carbajal) has been particularly vocal in calling out these tactics, and notes that of the two, Carbajal has been the more progressive on environmental issues. As she says, “Climate Hawks Vote endorsed Carbajal because he showed the political courage that Schneider didn’t, by endorsing Measure P, the fracking/extreme oil extraction measure considered by the voters in 2014. It’s Schneider who’s actually the lite-green candidate. So by the GOP’s logic, Carbajal is actually the more liberal candidate and more deserving of Democrats’ votes.”
To be clear, these are ads targeted at liberal Democratic voters, pretending to hit the non-frontrunning Dems for being too liberal (even when they’re actually more conservative than the frontrunner.) All so that they can game the jungle primary so that no Democrat will even appear on the November ballot.
This is dirty campaigning at its worst. It’s also one more reason among many that the top-two primary needs to be repealed in California, and should certainly not be replicated in other states.
There is a “Top Two Primary” initiative that has been circulating here in Arizona. It is unknown whether they will have enough valid signatures to get it on the November ballot this year. It has been blindly supported by the media pundits at The Arizona Republic fka The Arizona Republican on the specious argument that more mythical “moderate Republicans” might be elected.
Here in Arizona, the top two primary in the majority of legislative districts, and indeed in all statewide offices, would lead to only two Republicans appearing on the general election ballot for each office in November. Rest assured, the mythical “moderate Republican” candidate will not be the winner in November.
Democrats would have no incentive to turn out to vote in November between two Republican candidates, and Democrats would be needed to carry a “moderate” Republican to victory. No minor party candidate ever has any hope of qualifying for the November ballot, so minor parties also have been disenfranchised by not having the option of voting for the candidate of the party of their choice. This is a formula for one party Tea-Publican tyranny.
Arizona already has among the worst voter participation rates in the country. The Top Two Primary would reduce voter participation even further.
If this dog of an initiative qualifies for the ballot, vote against it.