Electoral Reform in California
One of the items that has not been discussed all that much this week (what with all the rage to discuss) is the passage of Proposition 14 in California that makes an important change to California’s election process.
First, despite what practically everyone is saying, this is not the creation of a new primary system. It is, in reality, the doing away with primaries totally and replacing it with a modified two-round process to elect officeholders. I say modified because even an absolute majority in the first round will not result in winning office.
To wit: a primary election is a process by which a given party nominates its candidates. It is a narrowing process by which a set of co-partisans compete among themselves to determine who their sole representative will be before the general electorate.
Under the new system there will be no process to winnow partisan fields and effectively the system allows for a self-nomination process.
It certainly is not an “open primary” (as many have called it). An open primary is properly defined (and has been for decades) as one in which voters do not register in advance with a given political party and can choose, on primary day, which primary they wish to participate in. This is the system, for example, used in both Alabama and Texas (and a large number of other states). A closed primary is one in which voters register ahead as Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, etc. and are therefore limited to vote in that party’s primary.
Second, the question becomes: what is it? It is a two-round process that takes the top two winners from the first round and pits them against one another in the second round. That could be, by the way, a Dem v. a Dem or a Rep v. Rep. Indeed, that will likely be the outcome in many races going forward. One thing that it will do is utterly eliminate third party candidates from the second round (the one that corresponds to the general election). This will literally be true as with only two candidates on the ballot in the second round, it is impossible to have a third party candidate.
One of the things that this process does is remove the ability of the party’s voters to directly influence which candidates are selected to represent their party. As a commenter at Fruits and Votes accurately described the process “retains party labels on the ballot but puts their use in the hands of candidates rather than the parties themselves.”
It affects all partisan elections in the state, save presidential primaries.
The argument in favor of Top Two (as it is called) is that it will help increase accountability and decrease partisanship/increase moderation. I have my doubts. Indeed, there is no particular reason to assume that this will be the case. As political scientist Barbara Sinclair notes:
To finish in the top two when the number of candidates is large appealing to a fervent base may well be the best strategy — particularly in less visible legislative races. After all, it may not take a very large percent of the vote to finish among the top two. Oh, but then the other, more moderate, candidate will win the general election, the argument goes. But why would we expect the “other candidate” to use a different strategy?
Political Scientist John J. Pitney, Jr. notes: “In states that have tried similar election procedures, there is little evidence that a more moderate political culture has resulted.”
Further, I would point out that the likelihood will remain that the voters who will turn out for the “primary” (i.e., the first round) will still be the more hardcore/partisan/ideological voters as opposed to the larger and likely more moderate voters who turn out for the general election (i.e., the second round). As such, this change does not alter a basic structural aspect of the process (i.e., the electorate that choose the top two is not the same as the electorate that chooses the officeholder–which is true of primaries in general).
It should be noted that this vote is the culmination of a long process over the last decade+ concerning California’s primary system (and now the lack thereof). California had been using what is called a blanket primary, wherein all the candidates for all the offices for all the parties was on one ballot. As such, a given voter could act as part of the Republican Party when choosing a Senate candidate, a Democrat when choosing a House candidate, and a Green for State Assembly, etc. Think of it as a really open primary wherein a voter choosing which party to which they belong per office on the same ballot. This process was declared to have violated the parties’ rights of free association (by forcing them onto the same ballot) by the Supreme Court in California Democratic Party v. Jones, 530 U.S. 567 (2000).
A variation of this system was used for years in Louisiana (but no longer for the US Congress). This system is also used in the state of Washington (which also, at one point, had used the blanket primary system as well).