California's Ballot Experiment

[ Posted Monday, May 21st, 2012 – 15:56 UTC ]

In a few weeks, California will hold its primary election. Not much news will be made, since the two major parties' presidential candidates are already known. But this election will be different for Californians in a major way. Because when the general election rolls around in November, there will likely be no third parties on the ballot for voters to choose from. Furthermore, in some races, there may be only one party represented on the general election ballot.

The reason is that California is in the midst of a political science experiment. The voters passed Proposition 14, which mandated a scheme known as "Top 2" voting. Explaining it is pretty simple, but what it could mean is a lot more complicated. In the primary election, all parties are free to put up as many candidates as they like for any particular office, as usual. But only the top two vote-getters -- from all parties combined -- will advance to the general election. In essence, the primary becomes the general election, and the general election becomes a runoff vote between the top two candidates.

While the presidential race is exempt from this scheme (presidential candidates from all parties will be on the general election ballot, as usual), most other offices will use "Top 2" voting: U.S. Senate, U.S. House of Representatives, and all state races (legislative and executive). What this means, for example, is that Dianne Feinstein may be facing a fellow Democrat on the ballot this November, with no Republican (or Green, or Libertarian) on the ballot at all.

I have no idea as to the likelihood of this happening in Feinstein's race, I should mention, I just used hers as a convenient example. The probability of two people from the same party making it to November is most likely a lot higher for races with districts rather than statewide races, since a single House district can be a lot more overwhelmingly Democratic (or Republican) than the state as a whole is.

Because this is a fairly radical change in the way Californians elect people, I really have no idea as to how it'll all play out. There may be unintended consequences, and the voters may wind up hating the new system. But since they instituted it in the first place, they'll be able to change it back with a future voter proposition, should they choose.

I have to say, the whole thing makes me a bit uncomfortable, though. Because one thing that is virtually assured is that we'll see a general election ballot filled with Democrats and Republicans -- with no third-party representation at all. Since "Top 2" will likely mean third parties will never (or almost never) qualify for the November ballot, it seems rather undemocratic in nature. If I were a member of the Green Party or the Libertarian Party (or any of the other third parties in California), I would likely be seriously annoyed at this turn of events. After all, fewer people vote in primaries, meaning your candidate won't even be seen by a large portion of the electorate in November.

It will be interesting, in a wonky sort of way, to see if any of the races wind up being between two Democrats or two Republicans. This might be a way to pry entrenched officeholders away from their jobs, by offering an overwhelmingly one-party district a way to replace him or her with an acceptable partisan. Some suggest that in such a contest, the candidates will have to pay attention to the minority party voters in the district, since that'll be where they can pick up stray votes. This will lead to more centrist candidates, this line of thinking proposes.

I'm not so sure, myself. If I were faced with two unacceptable candidates from a different party, I think I'd probably leave that contest blank on my ballot (I'm just supposing, here, it's impossible to say without knowing who the actual candidates would be).

This could have the effect of driving primary election turnout up, but then again it could also have the effect of driving general election participation down. Political experiments almost always produce side effects which were not predicted by those advocating the change.

We'll just have to wait and see how it turns out. Most voters won't even notice the change until November rolls around and there are only two names on the ballot for almost all the contests. This may come as somewhat of a shock to those voters who haven't been paying much attention. While the option will still exist to vote for a Libertarian or Green presidential candidate in November, they'll likely be the only representatives from their respective parties on the entire ballot. Which, as I said, doesn't really sit right with me, because it smacks of second-class status for anyone not a member of the Democratic Party or Republican Party.

-- Chris Weigant


Cross-posted at Business Insider
Cross-posted at The Huffington Post

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


3 Comments on “California's Ballot Experiment”

  1. [1] 
    dsws wrote:

    It's common for state legislators to run unopposed for re-election, and not unheard of for representative in the US House. In such situations, third party candidates would advance to the general-election ballot.

    Still, the system does seem rigged against third parties.

  2. [2] 
    Iceman wrote:

    I don't see why third parties are a concern when they are completely insignificant anyway under our political system. The Libertarians and Greens and other third parties combined are probably not even 1% of the electorate nationally. When is the last time the Greens or Libertarians did anything more than get 1-2% percentage of the vote, in any race, anywhere in the country? Nader's whole campaign only got around 2% and had no lasting impact on the political system at all. The US' winner take all electoral system basically makes third parties futile. If we had a proportional system like most European countries have, where X% of the vote gets you X% of the parliament, then alternative parties would have a chance. Most of those countries do have 5-6 major parties, and a party that gets even 5% can be a real factor in forming coalitions and getting its issues heard. But we don't have that, and we don't have any plausible way to get to that system, so the way it stands now third parties in the US are a waste.

  3. [3] 
    dsws wrote:

    Third parties have played a significant role in US politics. They can't win, but they can identify and mobilize constituencies that then become identifiable components of major parties.

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