California has a screwy system for our primaries. Instead of the parties getting to pick their candidates, everyone who is running is on the ballot and the top two candidates get to battle it out in the general election. The idea of these “top-two primaries” was to get more “moderate” candidates. But before getting to that, let’s discuss how it can totally disenfranchise the majority of the voters.
Imagine that you have a congressional district that is 60% Republican. And in the primary, there are 5 Republicans running and just 2 Democrats. Let’s suppose that they each get an equal share of their coalition. So each Republican gets one-fifth of 60%, or 12% of the total vote; each Democrat get one-half of 40%, or 20% of the total vote. So in the general election for a district that is overwhelmingly Republican, the voters get to choose from… two Democrats. That’s not Democracy; that’s madness.
Back in 2014, I wrote an article about the same issue, California’s Stupid Top-Two Primaries. In it, I talked about three districts where this was a real problem. Here is the most important:
But even in cases where the district is overwhelmingly Democratic and Republican, I still think it is wrong that partisans don’t get to vote for a candidate in their own party because of the top-two primaries. And that is looking like it is going to be the case at the state level when it comes to filling Barbara Boxer’s seat. According to Real Clear Politics, the top two candidates are Kamala Harris (30.2%) and Loretta Sánchez (17.4%). The best the Republicans have to offer is the devilishly handsome Tom Del Beccaro (7.0%).
Don’t get me wrong. As a partisan, I’m thrilled that not only is Barbara Boxer’s seat going to be filled with a Democrat but that it is going to be filled with a woman. I will probably vote for Sánchez, but I’ll be fine with Harris. (I have to admit, I haven’t been staying up on politics; this weekend will involve a whole lot of study.) So: go team!
But as a liberal, I hate this. In 2012, California was made up of 44% Democrats and 29% Republicans. And that comes out to about 60/40. I really do think that a Republican should be on the ballot for Senate in November. And a Libertarian and a Green and a Peace and Freedom.
There still remains the issue of getting more moderate candidates. Before I consider this, it shouldn’t surprise you to know that I think this is stupid. It’s like term limits. Everyone loves these kinds of laws (or in this case, change to the state constitution). It’s a way of telling other people how they ought to live their lives. I see no reason why Willie Brown should not still be in the California State Assembly if his voters wanted him there. And I see no reason why the Republicans shouldn’t be able to nominate whatever extremist they want.
But back in 2012, political scientists at UC Berkeley looked at the data and found that the top-two system did not give moderates any better a chance than the traditional system. So we have less choice. We have the situation where the minority party can win because of partisan disagreement. And we don’t even get the one thing we were supposed to get. California’s top-two primaries need to end.