Open Season on California Primaries

In June of this year Californians passed  Proposition 14 (see “California Voters Back Election Overhaul“).

The law (“Top Two Candidates Open Primary Act”)  will take effect on January 1, 2011 and sets up a simple “open” primary system in which all candidates for an office are listed on the ballot and have the choice of declaring a party affiliation or having “No Party Preference” next to their name. All voters will be able to vote for all candidates and the top two vote-getters will appear on the general election ballot in November.

In their endorsement of Prop 14, the LA Times made a case that open primaries would help end polarization and deadlock:

All party primaries tend to bring out committed voters who generally are more extreme than the mainstream of their parties. In California, however, that is compounded by a districting system that protects incumbents by creating seats dominated by one party or the other. Because most districts feature little real competition between the parties, Democratic officeholders fear that if they compromise with Republicans, they might be knocked off by a challenger from their left; conversely, Republicans know they too are safe from the left, but worry that a more conservative challenger might upset them by rallying that base. These are not irrational fears; retribution for unorthodoxy is coin of the realm in Sacramento, and California politics is littered with the remains of politicians who dared to break ranks in order to do what they perceived as best for the state.

The political parties opposed the change. You see, the change could weaken the parties. This is exactly the intention of many reformers. George Will complains that the system will produce bland candidates. Will forgets that most Americans are in the “bland” middle and feel seriously neglected. The current system is very much like perverse affirmative actions program intended to over-represent fringe perspectives.

One argument coming from the political parties is that the new system will encourage back room deals as candidates try to negotiate competitors out-of-the-way. Even if the parties are wrong about this, the political jockeying as potential candidates jump and out of the race can produce some unusual results. If, for example, the popular ideas that make a party a majority could also attract a lot of candidates. Dividing a healthy majority among several candidates could split their votes enough that their candidates would fail to finish in the top two and leave them left out of the general elections.

Consider the possibility of a state or district where party A (in red) enjoys a healthy 57% level of support while party B (in blue) has only 43%. As the figure below illustrates, if party A’s broad  appeal encourages three strong candidates from the party to run and party B’s weaker status only encourages two of their candidates to run, party A could actually see none of its candidates reach the general election. With only two candidates dividing up their share of the vote, both of Party B’s candidates would finish with 21% and 22% of the vote, besting the 19% put up by the three candidates dividing up the support of the majority party.

Of course, this might not happen and there are many other considerations in choosing a primary system. Still, this example illustrates that selecting a system of elections is never easy (William Poundstone’s Gaming the Vote provides a good overview of the dilemmas of choosing a voting system) and that citizens need to think about the advantages and disadvantages of each system. In the end, there is no perfect system.

What makes the new primaries even more interesting is that California has also tried to eliminate gerrymandering by handing redistricting over to a citizen redistricting board. The California Citizens Redistricting Commission is an attempt to remove partisanship and get away from letting the politicians pick their districts. This shuffles the deck as the politicians no long control who will face opposition.

I just came back from a three-day meeting of candidates and campaign consultants. No one knows what is going to happen in the California congressional races in 2012 with the new primaries and the new districts.

That might be a good thing.