California’s Screwy Top-Two Primaries

Ballot Box - Top-Two PrimariesCalifornia 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:

Let’s talk about one where we came less than a percentage point away from a totally ridiculous result: House of Representatives District 31. In that race, 53.3% of the people voted for a Democratic candidate and only 46.7% of the people voted for a Republican candidate. But there were four Democrats running and only three Republicans. The winner was Republican Paul Chabot with 26.8% of the vote. Second place went to Democrat Pete Aguilar with 17.4%—barely beating Republican Lesli Gooch with 16.5% of the vote. If Aguilar had lost just one percentage point of his vote to either of the Democrats Joe Baca or Danny Tillman, the general election would have been between two Republicans, even though the people showing up in the general election would overwhelmingly prefer a Democrat.

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%).

I think this is stupid. It’s like term limits. Everyone loves these kinds of laws. It’s a way of telling other people how they ought to live their lives.

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.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

8 thoughts on “California’s Screwy Top-Two Primaries

  1. This is just another nail in the coffin for the Republic. We should repeal the 17th Amendment which made senators get elected by popular vote, instead of being chosen by their state assemblies, thus moving power to the central government, away from the states and ultimately, the people. Too much power is now in the hands of too few people.

    We need an Article V convention of states to propose amendments to the Constitution and this movement is growing.

    • What?! Before the 17th, Senate seats were literally bought and sold. You think not allowing direct election of Senators will make things more democratic? You haven’t thought this through.

      As for your claim that local control is more democratic, there’s no evidence of that. You are arbitrarily setting classes. Is Rhode Island more democratic than California?! This obsession with local control is mindless. The worst assaults on personal liberty have been done at the state and local level. If it were up to the states, we would still have slavery.

      And if we had a convention, I think you’d be very surprised to find that the people are a whole lot more liberal than you would like.

      • And seats aren’t bought and sold now? The difference is that it’s easier to have contact with a state rep than with a Federal rep. I’ve made enough phone calls to know. And if enough local people get mad enough and make the state assembly feel the heat, then that senator can be recalled immediately. Just try and get a 30-year incumbent senator to leave, even when there’s incriminating evidence. It rarely happens.

        Once a senator gets to DC, they forget the people back home. Just look at the senators that don’t actually live in their home states but just use a relative’s address or a PO box. No connection, all ivory tower stuff. And they herd into parties. The Democrats run the show and the Republicans go along for the ride. The net result is 3000+ new federal regulations per year shrinking our liberty along the way.

        As for slavery, let’s stop the good state, bad state stuff, okay? States are groups of people. People did and still do bad things. Even New York had Tammany Hall so their hands aren’t clean either. The problem is, how to you keep government from becoming tyrannical. The Constitution was setup to limit federal power and give as much power to the states as possible while preserving individual liberty. I don’t see anything wrong with working towards that goal.

        As for a convention, perhaps you’re right. We may have turned a corner towards the Left that can’t be stopped. But even you have to agree to some common sense amendments like term limits and balanced budget, no?

        Have you read Mark Levin’s “The Liberty Amendments”?

        • Your argument against the 17th Amendment doesn’t make any sense. When I say that Senate seats were literally bought and sold, I mean they were literally — not metaphorically — bought and sold. Federal elected politicians are no more metaphorically bought and sold than state level politicians. And that means that having state legislators pick Senators would at best make things the same and more likely make them worse. And all that stuff about forgetting about the people back home is political folklore. I don’t care where they live; politicians who lose touch with their constituencies lose their jobs. This is why people in the House are safer than people in the Senate: Representatives can be much more helpful to their small constituencies than Senators can (at least in a state the size of California).

          I’m not pitting one state against another. I’m noting that the most egregious anti-liberty government policy happens at the state and local level. As a small businessman, I know that the laws that get in my way are not the federal laws; they are the state and local laws. It is a conservative myth that local government is better.

          And no, as a matter of fact, I do not have to agree that term limits are a good thing. You say you are for liberty? What about the liberty of people to vote for the candidates they want? Term limits are all about one person telling another who they can and can’t vote for. If you don’t like the politicians who other people vote for, campaign against them. Term limits are terrible. I’m against them in all cases. And anyone who believes in liberty should be against them.

          And how does a balanced budget amendment increase liberty? All it does is take away one economic tool that the government has for fighting recessions. The only time a budget deficit hurts the country is when we are at full employment. How often does that happen? The last time we were at full employment was early 2000; and it didn’t last long. If the balanced budget is a question of morality or something, please explain to me why it is immoral to borrow money. Most Americans have far more debt, proportionally, than the US government has. I constantly hear people talking about families living within their means. But most families in America have mortgages. They aren’t living within their means. (BTW: The explosion in federal debt happened when Mark Levin was working for Ronald Reagan. For the decades before that, the debt-to-GDP ratio had been falling steadily.)

          Look: you seem like a nice enough guy. But you also seem like someone who is stuck in an information bubble. I see that the three Constitutional changes you’ve mentioned are right from The Liberty Amendments. Levin also wants to cap taxation at 15%. I recommend you read actual historians and political theorists. And on the question of taxes, you might read my own article, States Screw the Poor and Middle Classes.

          I used to be a libertarian. In many ways my thinking hasn’t changed that much. But the problem that I had — one that most conservatives share — is the idea that the government is the main institution that limits liberty. That’s not even close to being true. But if all you do is read apologists for big business, you’ll never hear the question raised, much less considered. I’ll admit, Mark Levin isn’t nearly as bad as many other conservative writers. But he’s still a propagandist who cherry picks information to come to predefined conclusion. All that reading him will do for you is make you feel better about what you already think you know. It won’t get you thinking any more seriously about the issues that you actually care about.

        • Tammany Hall is an interesting example. A large reason for the success of machine politics was how receptive machine politicians were to constituent complaints. Machine politicians made a point of attending the weddings, funerals, festival celebrations of immigrant communities (say, the Irish or Italian communities) other politicians ignored. If your landlord was taking advantage of you, and you went to a Tammany politician, you had a good chance of getting your issue dealt with.

          So these politicians were very accessible and accountable to their constituents. As you mention, they were also corrupt as hell, and despite intervening on behalf of individual constituents, would enact and enforce laws for the benefit of whichever powerful interest gave them money (sweatshops like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, for instance.)

          • Excellent point. But note the equivalence of slavery and Tammany Hall. Of course, I don’t care. My point was to counter the idea that local control is better. Nirenberg effectively conceded the point, but then just forgot it. Local control is better because liberals and conservatives abuse it. The sad thing is that the guy is actually searching for answers. But he’s listening to Mark Levin.

            • I was idly listening to Hartmann the other day and he had a spokeswoman from the Trump campaign on. It was a polite exchange, no fighting. Hartmann asked her about some of Trump’s contradictory statements and she kept repeating the mantra, “voters need to find out for themselves.” Which means “find the information sources that confirm your wishes about what Trump stands for.”

              I do sympathize with what a challenge it can be to tell one source of information from another. Ultimately I guess I look for sources which don’t stick to a rigid ideological script. If everything fits neatly into one theory of “proves what we’ve been saying, yet again” it’s probably a guarantee that theory is bunk.

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