Bernstein on Politics: California’s Failed Electoral Experiment

(Bloomberg) -- We’re coming up to June of an election year, so everyone is about to be reminded what an absolutely inane system California’s top-two election method is. 

To review: All candidates enter into a June preliminary election, and then the top two finishers advance to the general election in November. 

Sometimes, that yields a nice, neat result, with one Democrat and one Republican advancing to November. But there’s no guarantee. Suppose in a 50-50 district that two Democrats split the Democratic vote, getting 24 percent of the overall vote each, while three Republicans evenly divide the rest of the vote and therefore get only about 17 percent each. In that artificial example, the Republicans actually “won” the district by totaling 51 percent to the Democrats’ 48 percent — but the two Democrats would advance, leaving Republicans without any option at all.

As Cook Report’s David Wasserman sees it, Democrats are vulnerable to that kind of lockout in several seats this year — seats they would have a good chance of winning in a one-on-one contest. Republicans could be locked out of one or two districts, too. 

Of course, the parties want to avoid that result, so right now party actors are hard at work trying to coordinate around one candidate in these districts, using whatever resources they have to attempt to force other candidates to drop out of contest. Or they may try to go negative against one of the other party’s contenders in hopes of consolidating their vote behind only one candidate. I’m all for party actors attempting to control nominations, but this is just asking for the kind of heavy-handed intervention that leaves everyone unhappy. Meanwhile, parties are ultimately rewarded for successfully gaming the system rather than doing the sorts of things democracy is supposed to encourage.

The glitch in the individual districts is likely to hurt Democrats this cycle. Republicans, however, might be hurt by another foolish top-two effect: Because no strong Republican is running for either governor or Senate, it’s possible that both of those highly visible races will wind up being between two Democrats. Polls right now suggest a Republican will probably survive the June ballot for at least the gubernatorial contest, but it’s not a sure thing. If it does turn out that only Democrats are in the high-visibility spots in November, that could hurt Republican turnout — which could be very bad news for Republicans in down-ballot races.

Proponents hoped that top two would produce more moderate candidates; that hasn’t really panned out, so far at least. Others simply don’t like political parties and consider the elimination of party primaries a virtue. But the parties don’t go away; they just push their coordination even earlier in the electoral cycle and have an incentive to enforce their decisions by pushing candidates out of the race. It’s hard to see how that’s an advantage over the ways parties influence nominations in normal primary states by giving cues to party voters, who are free to ignore those cues. 

I do like the “laboratories of democracy” idea of states experimenting with different electoral methods; I’m not a fan of ranked-choice voting, but I’m not unhappy to see Maine give it a try. Top two is just a really poor idea.  

2.  Elaine Kamarck on the proper role of party leaders in nomination politics. I disagree with several of the specifics here but strongly agree with the main point that it’s entirely appropriate for party leaders to get involved.

3 . Great Marian Currinder item at LegBranch on how Nancy Pelosi won the Democratic House leadership in the first place. 

4. Kristen Hopewell at the Monkey Cage on “Made in China 2025.”

5. David Kris at Lawfare on how the executive branch has shared information with Congress. 

7. And Matt Yglesias does a good job of using political science to explain the Kanye/Trump story.

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To contact the author of this story: Jonathan Bernstein at

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