Happy Election Day, California! Your System Is Still Terrible

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Today’s the big day in the 2018 primaries: Alabama, California, Mississippi, Montana, Iowa, New Jersey, New Mexico and South Dakota are all voting. Here’s one California preview from Cook Political Report’s Dave Wasserman, and another from NBC’s First Read. As usual, Daily Kos Elections has the best overall rundown (yes, it’s a very partisan liberal site, but when it comes to election basics, it’s become very, very good). 

As all the previews will tell you, the main question is whether California’s top-two system will wind up locking Democrats out of any of the seats they otherwise would have a solid chance of winning in November. It appears they probably have dodged that bullet, but we won’t really know until the results come in. Which could take a few days, given the usual slow count of that state’s vote-by-mail system.

Technically, California’s election Tuesday isn’t really a primary at all. A primary election is used to nominate a party’s candidate for a general election. But top two doesn’t do that. The two candidates with the most votes advance, regardless of party. That makes the June election the first step of a two-stage general election, regardless of what the state calls it.

Most of the focus on what’s wrong with top two this year has been on the “lockout” problem — that a party that could win a seat may, if it splits its votes among several candidates, get locked out in November entirely. Another problem is that Republicans may get locked out of the top-of-the-ticket gubernatorial and U.S. Senate elections, which could lower Republican interest in the November election. 

Another problem is that even though it’s a de facto first-stage general election, turnout in June is lower than in November because voters don’t realize that, so the most active voters have extra clout. And while I’m no fan of third parties, I can’t really endorse the way that top two eliminates them in most cases long before most voters are even paying attention. One useful role of third parties in a two-party system, after all, is to draw attention to policy choices the main parties ignore; that’s almost impossible in a system that eliminates them before most people have tuned in.

Even if the system avoided each of those problems, it would still be a bad idea because the fundamental concept is to disrupt the ability of parties to choose their own nominees. And that’s a mistake: Parties are necessary to all large democracies. Parties activate and accommodate participation from groups and individuals; they provide critical intermediation between political elites and voters, which in turn makes representation possible; they help organize government and opposition ideas about public policy; and they simplify the often-bewildering choices voters must make. 

And what we’ve learned is that parties adapt, no matter how difficult government makes it for them to function. We’ve seen that in California this year, with both Democrats and Republicans finding all sorts of ways to try to get the candidates they want into the November election. However, not all ways of organizing parties are equally healthy or equally permeable, and I worry about the effects of all of this on California’s Democrats and Republicans. Nor does it really make sense to constantly force parties to re-invent the wheel. 

It’s a lousy system. The sooner the state gets rid of it, the better.

1. Dave Hopkins on Charlie Baker and partisanship. Great topic, great item. 

2. Susan Waltz at the Monkey Cage on U.S. gun sales abroad

3. Rick Hasen raises a good point about the Masterpiece Cakeshop decision

4. Dan Drezner on all the things the U.S. is doing wrong in President Donald Trump’s trade war.

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