California’s new electoral system

This is what California’s ballot for US Senate looked like today.

2012 June top-two ballot columns
Click for detail of a portion of this ballot

This is an image from Orange County; there would be regional variations in format. This example seems especially bad, with some of the candidates, including the incumbent, listed in a short second column. ((The ballot where I voted managed to have all these candidates in a single column.))

That’s 24 candidates, including several with the same indicated “party preference” as others running. The electoral system is now “top two”. Rather than an actual primary, in which each of the recognized parties will winnow their field to one candidate for the general election in November, the top two–regardless of party and regardless of whether one obtains an overall majority today–will face each other in November. And only the top two, meaning no minority party presence (unless one of the third party candidates somehow manages to be in the top two). ((Strangely, one of the recognized parties, the Greens, has no candidate even in this first round.))

I am not a fan of this new system. I did not cast a vote in this particular contest.

14 thoughts on “California’s new electoral system

  1. It’s hard to read that, but it looks like many more than two candidates for each of the main parties. I presume this means parties have no control over who runs under their banner?

  2. Oh dear, they actually went with this system? This was being discussed before I moved back east, some 5 years ago now. It seemed like a bad idea then, and seeing that ballot, it seems doubley so now. Do we really want Feinstein to have to run a general election race against Tatitz?

  3. I’m curious, MSS, as to what system you would prefer to see for M=1 contests like this.

    Also, it is my understanding that in most examples of two-round elections the parties have already selected a single nominee prior to the first round. This “pick a party label” is clearly subject to sabotage and downright lies, apart from the terrible fragmentation seen here. I am rather surprised that there is no provision for a majority winner to claim victory in the first round, but then again primary turnout is usually pretty low and the incumbents in California’s many safe seats wouldn’t even have to bother with November.

  4. As I understand, this is equivelant to two-round system as used for presidential election in so many countries. Surely that’s an improvement on FPTP?

  5. TRS can, in certain circumstances, be somewhat random and return very strange outcomes like the Chirac/Le Pen result. STV would not have put Le Pen into the notional second round, the last count (thank goodness I saved myself from calling it a stage) where only 2 continuing candidates remain.

    As I understand MSS’ concerns like TRS this top two system can also produce somewhat random results if there are many candidates. Like both TRS and FPTP, T2 enables a variety of ways to game the system and distort the result.

    I may be wrong about MSS’ concerns and and STV may not be his first preference over T2.

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  7. This seems to have been due to a bit of system gaming, supported by the economically conservative, culturally liberal former governor to overcome a perceived bias towards electing economically non-conservative Democrats and culturally populist Republicans.

    But the more I hear of the new system, the more I like it. It will have the probably unintended benefit of somewhat eroding the control of the Democratic and Republican party machines. There are no advantages re ballot access as in the rest of the country, and the party’s candidates don’t even get a clear field against other politicians who belong to the same party.

    The ballots themselves are ridiculous, but American vote counting methods everywhere are ridiculous. The standard should be that the voter shows up at the polls, is given several booklets of cards, one booklet per office and each card listing a candidate. The voter then tears out the card showing his or her preferred candidate and drops in a box. The boxes are open and the cards are counted in public. Or some sort of variation of this. When my wife recently visited an outlet mall she was given a booklet of coupons, listed alphebetically by store, and she could tear off an individual coupon and give it to the cashier to get a discount, so I think election officials and voters could manage the system I just described. The overly complex American voting systems are basically open invitations to ballot fraud but the example given here is of that, not of what amounts to a single member majority system.

  8. If it were up to me–but PR was off the table–I would return to having partisan primaries, followed by a general open to all parties. Both the primary and the general elections would be by STV (i.e. the Alternative Vote form of instant runoff).

    I do not consider this system an improvement over the status quo ante.

  9. There are previous discussions here (click on “American Political Reform”) regarding both this system and the questions of whether two-round majority, plurality, or AV/IRV is preferable for M=1.

  10. Of the 24 candidates, 14 were Republicans, 6 Democrats, 2 Peace & Freedom (a socialist groupuscule), 1 American Independent (authoritarian right), and 1 Libertarian. As noted, the Greens, despite having ballot status in California, did not have a candidate.

    I added a link above to a detail of a portion of the ballot.

    Dianne Feinstein, the incumbent Democratic Senator, won 49.3% of the vote. In the runoff (which, to be clear, would happen even had Feinstein surpassed 50%) will face Elizabeth Emkin, a Republican who won 12.5%. In distant third was another Republican with only 6.7%

    The parties exercise no control over who appears on the ballot with their label. Candidates self-nominate and determine which of the recognized parties, if any, they will indicate as their “party preference” on the ballot.

    Of course, in the previous system of partisan primaries, there was also no party organization controlling who would appear on the ballot in the primary. And the sole winner, by plurality, of each party’s primary was guaranteed that party’s line on the general-election ballot in November.

    In other words, there have been no “party machines” in any meaningful sense of the word for a long time.

  11. I agree that the power of “party machines” is probably overrated (and certainly over-feared) but I’m not so convinced that the party machinery has no influence.

    I found endorsement pages for both D & R parties, and compared them with the results for US Congressman. In only one of the 53 districts did a non-endorsed candidate top their party’s vote [1]. That seems a little hard to explain without attributing some influence to the party organisation, although the dominance is not quite as overwhelming as it seems:

    1) Both parties seem to have consistently endorsed incumbents, and there could be a considerable incumbency effect.

    2) Also, in some districts there was only one candidate for a party, and in most of those the party endorsed that candidate.

    3) Parties did not endorse candidates in every district (indeed, there are districts in which no-one ran for one or the other party).

    Even so, there were a number of districts in which a party had more than one competing non-incumbent candidate of which one received an endorsement, and in all but one of those cases, the endorsed candidate won. I haven’t done any stats, although I might because it seems like it would be interesting, but I have the impression that the races without an endorsed candidate were also closer than the races with an endorsed candidate. (Of course, that might indicate reluctance to endorse in a close race, see point 3 above.)

    [1]: The one endorsed loser: Republican candidate Xanthi Gionis in District 51

  12. There are states where the Democratic and Republican candidates have guaranteed ballot positions and/or incumbents have guaranteed ballot positions, and everyone else has to go through some sort of cumbersome process to get on the ballot. Granted the “guaranteed positions” for the Democrats and Republicans are the result of neutral criteria such as votes in the last gubernatorial contest, but the effect is to guarantee spots for the two main parties.

    Now politics in California has always been more open than in the rest of the country, particularly the Northeast where I live. In New York, preventing legitimate candidates from qualifying for the ballot has been a normal part of the political game.

    Still there are lots of small subsidies or advantages to the Democrats and Republicans vs. potential challenger parties throughout the American political system (I would definitely include any public money used to finance their primaries, caucuses, and conventions as part of that), and easier access to the ballot is part of that. The new electoral system seems to remove that advantage.

    There now seems to be no difference in terms of ballot access to a politician between running in the first round as an independent vs running as a Democrat or a Republican. In most states, it is always better to try to win the Democratic or Republican primary instead of trying to run as an independent or minor party candidate and have to deal with ballot access headaches. I noticed that in yesterday’s congressional primaries, a few relatively liberal Republicans ran as independents in Democratic leaning areas. I think this is fine, and we may eventually get new political groupings based on non-Democratic politicians in urban areas, and non-Republican politicians in rural areas, self-identify as independents or third party candidates. Before these politicians would either run as the candidate for the albatross party in their area (eg Republicans in blue areas and Democrats in red areas), or contest the primary of the locally dominant party despite not having much affinity for that party in terms of their political outlook.

  13. I really think a runoff system shouldn’t precisely be a Top2 system. In the US Senate race in CA, there were 25 candidates I counted. A slight improvement here would be:

    a) Top-n: n would be the square root of the total number of candidates available. These candidates would qualify for the general election.

    b) Approval voting in the primary round: allowing for voters to vote for more than one candidate can actually bring parties to gather around one single candidate.

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