On this latest primary day, I have a piece for Reuters summarizing the arguments Dave and I made recently about how awful the two-top primary system our state regrettably pioneered is. It’s possible that Democratic voters will be effectively disenfranchised in 3 critical California general election contests, in exchange for alleged democratic benefits that are negligible at best. This is, needless to say, bad. There’s an additional irony, which is that an essentially anti-party reform encourages more meddling by party elites. But paradoxically since party elites are much less powerful in dictating primary outcomes than many people think, these interventions stir up resentment without actually solving the underlying collective action problem:
And it is not the only perverse outcome created by the top-two system. One of the goals of eliminating partisan primaries is to reduce the role of parties in selecting candidates. But because the failure to rally around a candidate before the fact can lead to the party being excluded from a winnable general election, if anything the top-two primary encourages more meddling from party elites. This leads to the worst of both worlds.
On one hand, many party activists resent – not without reason – official party organs intervening in competitive primary campaigns. Party elites aren’t necessarily that good at predicting who is electable. There is no single entity representing the Democratic Party that can ensure coordination around candidates in a jungle primary. In the case of CA-48, the national Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) supports Rouda, but the state party supports Keirstead. And if party officials were on the same page, their power would still be limited – it’s not at all uncommon for primary candidates backed by the DCCC to lose. In a typical primary system, these conflicts can be resolved by the voters. But the top-two encourages more heavy-handed intervention from the party, which results in hostility towards the party and no guarantee of the desired election outcome.
Top-two is silly we-need-to-take-the-politics-out-of-politics wankery to begin with. But it’s the combination with plurality voting that makes it a real disaster:
It’s not just the top-two primary that’s the problem. An even bigger issue in U.S. politics, relevant in more states, is plurality voting – the system that records a single vote per voter and awards the top candidate(s) as winner(s) even if they fall short of a majority. Ranked-choice or other systems that allow voters to rank preferences for multiple candidates would greatly reduce perverse outcomes. A Rouda or Keirstead voter could name the other major Democratic candidate their second choice and avoid the risk of producing their least-preferred outcome – a general election with no Democratic nominees.
Improving the electoral system wouldn’t just help California. The conservative columnist David Brooks recently made the case for multimember districts and ranked-choice voting. This would not merely allow voters to vote for their favorite candidate without risking their least-favored outcome, it would also address another major democratic infirmity by making it much harder to gerrymander House districts. The potential for perverse results in California should provide an impetus to consider reforms that would produce more democratic results beyond the Golden State.
Relatedly, Nathaniel Rakich has a bank-shot argument that the top-two system could end up being even worse for Republicans. The fact that they will be locked out of the gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races is trivial in itself, as they have no chance of winning, but not having candidates might reduce turnout, potentially costing them marginal districts in which Canlifronia’s election system generously allows Democrats with the ability to put together a majority coalition to run in the general election. The idea than having hopeless gubernatorial candidate and Senate races would drive non-trivial amounts of turnout doesn’t strike me as terribly plausible, but it’s certainly possible. But the top-two system would still be bad even if it marginally helps Democrats! Plurality voting is a very bad system, but the two party system can largely mitigate its undemocratic effects. Plurality without a strong party system will just produce more anti-democratic results in a country that really doesn’t need more anti-democratic structural features.
As Julia says:
…in also related news, Clare Malone has a good profile of the lowest-WAR Democratic senator.