The Problem With California’s Primaries

There are some things I like about the way California does its federal elections, but I definitely do not love one of the unintended consequences of their reforms. What’s different about California’s system is that they do not have party primaries. Anyone running for federal office enters a single primary and only the top two vote-getters appear on the general election day ballot. Therefore, the state regularly features elections where the voters are given a choice between either two Democrats or two Republicans.

Now, if we’re talking about a seat that is 80 or 90 percent Democratic, choosing between two Democrats may offer more of a choice to that district’s constituents. But there are cases where the seat is competitive but the voters don’t get a choice between a Democrat and a Republican because of something that has nothing to do with their preferences.

When one party offers significantly more candidates than the other, they can see their pie divided into so many small slices that none of their office-seekers can get enough votes to be in at least second place. For example, if seven Democrats are running against two Republicans, it’s easy to see how the overall vote for Democrats could be well north of 50 percent, even as the two Republicans wind up as the winners of the primary. The same thing can obviously happen in reverse, with the Democrats on the ballot despite the district having a clear Republican lean.

So, as a result, we have a new disturbing feature in our politics that revolves around trying to control how many candidates will run.

CA-39: State and national Democrats have not been quiet about voicing their fears that two Republicans could advance through the June top-two primary and lock Team Blue out of the general election for this open seat. Their math got a little easier hours before Wednesday’s filing deadline when education consultant Phil Janowicz announced he was dropping out in order to try and prevent this kind of disaster. When the dust settled, a total of nine Democrats, seven Republicans, and four others had filed to run, though election officials still need to verify that all these people submitted enough signatures.

It’s anyone’s guess what will happen in June, though if any Republicans are worried that they’ll be the ones locked out of the general, they’re being very subtle about it. Still, it’s worth noting that national Republicans reportedly tried to convince at least one candidate to drop out. Former state Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff took a little longer than his main intra-party rivals to file to run, and Around the Capitol’s Scott Lay wrote on Monday that he was “under big NRCC pressure to not do so.” However, Huff went ahead and filed anyway.

We talk a lot about how politicians choose their voters through gerrymandering districts rather than the voters choosing the politicians. And that’s a real shortcoming of our system that’s been getting worse with the aid of sophisticated computer programs. But the problem I’m describing here is similar. Parties are trying to win elections by gaming them out in the primaries so the opposing party will not even appear on the general election ballot. And then, to avoid that happening to them, they’re trying to coerce people not to seek office.

This then gives people an opportunity to run for office not because they genuinely intend to run a serious campaign, but only so they can receive some kind of pay-off to drop out before their name can appear on the ballot. It’s an inherently corrupting system.

The system does have some positive aspects. It’s much easier for third-party candidates to get taken seriously and find themselves in one-on-one battles with one of the major parties. And this can create a more meaningful choice for the voters, too. A Republican isn’t going to beat Nancy Pelosi or Barbara Lee in the Bay Area, but it’s at least possible that a left-leaning third party candidate could do so. If nothing else, the threat can provide some kind of accountability which is what’s always lacking in these heavily Democratic districts.

Overall though, there’s too much chance in this system. Candidates routinely qualify for the general election ballot not because of what they said or did but because diving by seven produces a smaller number than dividing by four.

I haven’t thought too hard about how to fix this in any other way than just scrapping it entirely, but perhaps there are ways to tinker with the system to make it less capricious and corrupt, and less apt to take choices away from the electorate.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.