This Voter Likes It in the Jungle

GELFAND’S WORLD-Forgive me, but I actually like the primary system we use here in California.

Some call the system we use a "jungle" primary -- an odd name for the ultimate civic act of voting. But the intermingling of species on the same ballot -- a John Cox conservative running against an aggressively liberal Gavin Newsome running against various third party candidates -- and all of them arranged on the ballot for every voter to select from -- this makes the term understandable. 

Officially, what we had on Tuesday is now called a "Top Two" primary. Did you notice that you weren't provided a partisan ballot (all Republicans or all Democrats)? Every candidate for governor was on your ballot, whether Democrat or Republican. There were a couple of Greens, the same number of Libertarians, 5 candidates expressing no party preference (they call it NPP), and all alone, a single Peace and Freedom Party candidate who managed to scrounge 0.3% of the votes. And you got the chance to read their names and, without regard to your own party affiliation, select your best choice. 

Then, you had the pleasure of going to the next race and again, without concerns over party affiliation, you had the choice among all candidates of all political persuasions. You could vote for a Democrat for governor, a Republican for Lt. governor, and perhaps a Libertarian for some other seat. 

The Top Two system opens the primary election to the second largest group of voters in California, those registered as No Party Preference. (That's right, the Republicans are currently in third place in the registration statistics.) That's reason enough to support the overall idea. 

If you are one of those folks who like to vote for the best person rather than the political party (morally defensible in local and state elections), then you had that chance. It's not unreasonable to argue that this is more democratic than limiting voters to candidates from only one political party. 

Like I said, I rather enjoy this system, but there are some level headed people who find it detestable. 

Not the least is Scott Lemieux who writes for the website Lawyers Guns and Money.  His critique can be found in his article Bungle in the Jungle. I won't attempt to summarize the entirety of Scott's arguments, but there is the strong undercurrent that three possible Democratic takeaways in the House of Representatives were threatened due to the way California does its electoral business. The 39th, 48th, and 49th district seats are supposedly contestable by Democrats, even though they are on the other side of the Orange Curtain. Republican congressmen Ed Royce and Darrel Issa were considered potentially beatable in an anti-Trump year, and both found it the better part of valor to announce their retirements well in advance of the primary election. 

I suspect that Democrats would have enjoyed running against Issa himself. He has what is politely referred to as "baggage." In the very Republican 2016 election, he squeaked by with a 1600 vote victory. He was takeable. His retirement leaves the 49th as an open seat. 

Here is the math that anti-jungle pundits like to cite: Suppose that for some congressional district, the Democratic candidates have 59% of the votes to split among themselves because that is the makeup of the district. And suppose the Republicans only have 41% of the votes to split among themselves. A district like this ought to be a Democratic walk in the park, right? 

But now suppose that there are 3 Democrats in the primary and they split the 59% about equally. And suppose there are only 2 Republicans, and they split the 41% equally. 

A little arithmetic shows that the Democrats will each finish with a little under 20% of the vote, whereas the two Republicans will each finish with a bit more than 20%. 

Presto! Your worst nightmare -- what is rightfully a Democratic seat is sacrificed because the two Republicans will be in the runoff. Had this election been carried out under the old system where each party selects its own candidate via a partisan primary, we would see a Republican losing to a Democrat in the finals by a predictable 59%-41% margin (give or take a few percentage points). But in the Top Two primary, having too many candidates (what any political party hoping for growth would ordinarily want ) becomes the kiss of death. 

(Skip the following paragraph if you are math-phobic.) 

If there are lots of candidates running, you don't even need this kind of evenness in the vote splits to kill you. With six or seven candidates on your side, you can imagine all sorts of possibilities that keep every one of your candidates out of the Top Two, even when the splits are unequal. Imagine having 10 candidates on your side, getting respectively 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1 percent of the votes. That's 55% of the total, a very respectable majority and what would ordinarily signal an easy victory in the general election. But if the other major party fields only 2 primary candidates and they get 15 or 20% each, then your 55% general election victory will never happen because the two candidates representing 40 or 45% of the total will face each other in the runoff. 

And these sorts of worries are what we heard from analysts and columnists for weeks, even if their mathematical prognostications weren't so sophisticated. I must confess that it was a concern for me going into Tuesday. 

In practice, things didn't work out that way. At least they haven't as of late Wednesday. In all three of the Orange County districts in question, we will see a Democrat and a Republican in the runoff. It is barely possible that late-arriving mailed ballots and provisional ballots will sway the results, but it doesn't look that way. At most, the order of finish among Democrats seeking to make the Top Two will change in the 48th congressional district. 

What's amusing is that the Republicans, for all their reputation for party discipline, had more candidates in a couple of these races than their Democratic opponents. In the 39th, the 6 Democrats competed with 7 Republicans. In the 49th, only 4 Democrats faced off against 8 Republicans. This, by the way, is the likeliest Democratic pickup, because the 4 Dems together took a total of about 50% of the votes. 

In the 48th it was the other way around, with 8 Democrats facing 6 Republicans, but incumbent Dana Rohrabacher took so many votes (30.4%) that his Republican rival Scott Baugh (16.1%) ran behind two Democrats, each at 17.2% 

That's another complication of jungle primary math -- if you want your party to take both runoff spots, then you have to hope that they split the votes pretty evenly. From the party's standpoint, it's bad for one candidate to do too well. 

Overall, you might say that the Democrats dodged a bullet on Tuesday. I think that this is a true statement, but I think it's also correct to point out that the system functioned pretty much the way it was supposed to. Voters got to express their views and neither major party got shut out of the finals. In addition, the vaunted Republican Party discipline apparently stayed home from school, because a truly disciplined machine might have figured out a way to divide votes equally among two candidates. Apparently even Orange County Republican leaders don't have that kind of influence. 

Scott Lemieux and others took their arguments beyond the electoral math. They argue that the Top Two system is less democratic than ordinary primaries. I presume they feel this way because the original system allows each political party to make what it thinks is its strongest choice, without hindrance from those who are not of that party. They point out that the original defense of this system was twofold: The Top Two system is supposed to reduce the ability of political insiders to be king makers, and it is supposed to make it possible for moderates to win in the general election. 

The idea that the Top Two system would favor moderation is enticing. The idea seems to be that a lot of voters are turned off by extremism from either side of the spectrum, but in the old partisan primary system, there was less choice. The Republicans would nominate an extreme conservative, and the Democrats would nominate a flaming liberal, and the ultimate result depended simply on how many of each party turned out to vote. 

On the other hand, it was argued, in a Top Two primary, voters have to engage in some electoral strategizing. If they select a radical as their party choice and the other side selects a moderate, the strong majority of moderate voters can gang up and elect the more moderate candidate in the general election. 

I must confess that I had some hopes for this line of argument. At the moment, though, there is little evidence to indicate that the system actually works this way. Perhaps there just aren't that many districts that are half moderate, one-quarter right wing, and one-quarter left wing. Perhaps the best we can hope is that we are living through a hyper-partisan era where party affiliation trumps moderation, and that things will be different in the future. What's missing is a political system in which Democrats and Republicans each have a wide enough range of political views that there is some overlap between the two parties. Don't laugh -- there used to be liberal Republicans who were supportive of things such as environmental protection. 

At a different level, Lemieux argues for what is called "ranked choice," a voting system in which you get to mark your first and second choices for each office. The argument is that this allows partisan voters to pick their favorite candidates but also to protect their party's majority by selecting a second choice who will get the vote in the event that nobody gets a majority in the first count. It's also supposed to make the runoff election unnecessary. It's been used in a few places, but seems unlikely to be substituted for our current system. 

The philosophical argument for the open or Top two primary system 

At one time, California had a system that was called the blanket primary. It was a little different from the current system, but it did allow voters to be able to vote for either a Republican or a Democrat for each office. The earlier system was disallowed by the Supreme Court. One argument made by the Democrats went like this: "The Angels shouldn't get to pick the Dodgers' lineup in the freeway series." I agree with this argument when it comes to baseball, but you have to consider the premise of the argument. We are not considering a sporting contest between two private organizations. We -- and that refers to all voters -- are engaging in the act of choosing who will rule over us. Whether we give special power and authority to those private groups known as political parties is simply a matter of expedience. If it serves the purpose of a stronger and broader democratic process, then so be it. But if, as we saw so often in prior years, the parties run roughshod over the public good, then we voters have the right to make new ground rules over how these public choices are made. 

Addendum 

Wow. I understood at the gut level that Antonio Villaraigosa did not gain a lot of supporters by being mayor of Los Angeles. But his dismal defeat (even with big money backing by some members of the billionaires club) was, well, dismal. An article in the LA Times by Seema Mehta and Phil Willon titled How Villaraigosa lost the governor's race despite tens of millions of dollars spent to boost his bid tries to explain the defeat as a perfect wave of mistaken strategies. I think there is a simpler explanation. As mayor, Villaraigosa never quite got the hang of real leadership and he rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. As an example from that microcosm known as the neighborhood council system, Tony V appointed one of his political helpers to run the department that oversees the council system. In spite of direct pleas to him to remove her (she was cutting a wide swathe of damage at all levels), he kept her in for way too long. Thousands of us were made to waste thousands of hours of our time in dealing with this blunder. 

Antonio wasn't about to get a lot of support from people who had dealt with him at the local level. The idea that wealthy charter school supporters would pull him over the finish line seems a little naive in retrospect. 

The other slight surprise was how few votes Kevin de Leon got in his race against incumbent senator Dianne Feinstein. In this region, Feinstein ran a full schedule of television ads. They weren't bland either.  DF challenged the NRA directly. Her campaign was also wise enough to remind the older set about her work on defending the California deserts. By the way, with de Leon managing to make it to the runoff by the skin of his teeth, this is another statewide race which will feature two Democrats and zero Republicans. The highest scoring Republican didn't even break ten percent. Apparently Pete Wilson's support for Prop 187 (so long ago now) is the gift that keeps on giving.

 

(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at amrep535@sbcglobal.net)

-cw