Project Wonderful

Sunday, June 10, 2018

California's Top Two Primary Is Bad and Should Be Abolished

I'm back, babies! Well, back because I lost a primary. But that's okay. I have actually never felt so okay after losing an election first because I am so incredibly proud of the job that we did and second because I was prepared for the possibility of going right into the general election so I'm still raring to go to take back the house and take on actual Republicans (I hate primaries.)

Anyway I have been itching to write a post about the top-two primary system for a while but for obvious reasons was holding back until I was not currently at its mercy. For those of you who have not been following the political pants-peeing Twitterverse the top two "jungle" primary means that the top two vote-getters, regardless of political party, advance to the general election.

At first glance, a jungle primary seems appealing if you do not go in for the two party system. The problem is that we currently live in a dangerous political reality and not a cloud made of unicorns. It may also seems appealing if you live in a solidly red or solidly blue district where you would like to have an actual choice in the general election. Again, that would be fine if there weren't several swing districts in California that could determine the fate of the house and therefore of whether many Americans have things like visas for their family and healthcare.

Take a district like mine which has an EVEN Cook PVI. When incumbent Ed Royce was running for re-election, no problem. He would easily get the bulk of the Republican vote and advance to the general election with the top Democratic vote-getter. But when Royce announced his retirement, all hell broke loose. We had 21 candidates and 17 who ultimately filed, but let's say for the sake of simplicity there are 6 viable Democratic candidates (Bert, Ernie, Grover, Elmo, Big Bird, and Cookie Monster) and 3 Republicans (Reptar*, Rodger Klotz and Mr. Bone).

We could end up with a result like this:

Big Bird-14%
Cookie Monster-13%
Mr.Bone- 9%

Klotz and Reptar, both Republicans, would advance to the general election even though 60% of the electorate voted for Democrats.

How primaries should work in general is a topic of contentious debate. Should they be closed (meaning you have to be a registered Dem to vote in the Democratic primary) or should they be open (meaning anyone can vote in any party primary, thus expanding participation) or somewhere in between? But whether you argue for the former or the later this accomplishes neither goal. A top-two primary robs the Democratic electorate of choosing their nominee and weakens the power of the Democratic party. Neither does it enfranchise the broader electorate. In the example above, most voters preferred a Democrat but will now be stuck with the choice of two Republicans as their representative.

An ancillary problem is that this system favors Republicans, who are more consistent primary voters. I can't tell you how many Dem or Dem-leaning Decline to State voters I spoke with were not planning on voting the primary because they figured they would just support the Democratic nominee in the general election, not realizing if they didn't vote now they might not have that option. (This part is ultimately a problem of both turnout and voter education but I felt it was worth mentioning here.) Dedicated Democratic voters had the opposite problem of being forced to choose not their preferred candidate, nor even the candidate who they felt had the best chance of winning a general election, but the candidate who was best positioned to make it into the general election, not always the same person.

Furthermore, the jungle primary leads to poor distribution of resources. Because there is no true Democratic primary, the California Democratic Party (CDP) engages in a series of caucuses for their nomination process. The rules and especially list of participants in these caucuses are (despite the best efforts of many dedicated people on the CDP staff) byzantine and amorphous respectively, much to the frustration of anyone who has managed a primary campaign in the state. The caucus- goers are local Democratic party delegates and their alternates which means that an extremely disproportionate amount of a candidate's time in the early and even mid months of a primary is spent talking to 30 to 60 voters who may or may not represent the will of the actual electorate. It is a questionable process to say the least but it is also the only way for the state party infrastructure to exercise its power in a top-two primary system.

But it gets even more convoluted. Unlike the Minnesota caucuses, which are a whole other kettle of lutefisk, voting is not open to the general public and candidates and stakeholders do not as a rule abide by the endorsement** although state and local party leaders argue that they should. To wit, in California's 48th District the CDP endorsed Hans Kierstead and the DCCC endorsed Harley Rouda. As of writing, that race remains too close to call.

Speaking of the DCCC, the other massive waste of resources caused by the top-two primary system is the DCCC's involvement. Wounds are still fresh, but although I vehemently disagreed with and at at times felt personally victimized by the DCCC's choice to get involved in my race, I still totally get why they did it. In general, I am of the opinion that rather than invest in altering the outcome of Democratic primaries, the party should spend that money figuring out how to win general elections. However, in the case of California's top-two primary system the DCCC has not just a right, but an obligation, to ensure that at least one Democrat makes it to the general election. The result, however ham-fisted, is millions of institutional dollars spent necessarily meddling in primaries when that money could, should, and mostly likely was intended by donors to be spent fighting Republicans. One can only imagine the ill-will and distrust generated between national and local parties thanks to the jungle primary system.

So what to do? If one believes that the impetus for California's top-two primary system is to create greater choice for voters in deep red or blue districts (and not, as has been suggested to me, to create greater opportunities for lobbyists) then my suggestion is instant runoff primary voting. Under such a system, Californians would have the opportunity to express their preferences among their party's candidates without causing a general election shutout, except in cases where the majority of the electorate really did skew heavily red or blue. It's a system that, like all other electoral systems, could be gamed but would still be a marked improvement. Ranked choice voting has the added benefit of discouraging intra-party negative campaigning since you still want your opponents' supporters to put you second, but more on that another time.

There you have it. This was almost as exhausting to write as it was to live through, but I hope not so to read. What other topics do you want to see? I've got loads of opinions and a moderate amount of free time and it's great to be blogging again.

Campaign Love and Mine,


*Yes I know Reptar was from Rugrats and the other two were from Doug. Don't @ me, bro.
** I see you, Tim Walz.

No comments:

Post a Comment