Last weekend I noted that the ongoing presidential primary between Sanders and Clinton is benefiting Democrats in California. That’s not just because of increased voter registration, but more importantly because of California’s awful top-two primary system.

To recap, in 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. I’ve received two of these myself:


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.

David Atkins

Follow David on Twitter @DavidOAtkins. David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.