The new electoral system in California is a top-two majority runoff with the possibility of multiple candidates from one party. Please, do not call it a primary, because it isn’t. In a primary, a political party permits voters to select its candidate for the general election. However, under the new California system, the general election will now be just a runoff between the top two candidates, regardless of party. That is, at most, two parties will be represented on the general-election ballot, but it is possible for both candidates to be from the same party, or no party (if both of the top two in the first round were non-partisan).
We might call it two-round SNTV, for lack of a better term. The reference to SNTV–single non-transferable vote–calls attention to the fact that two or more candidates of the same party can be competing with each other, but co-partisans are unable to share votes with one another to ensure that they don’t divide the vote and cause none of them to advance. (As noted, the second round can also feature two candidates of one party, but then there is no risk of coordination failure, as the winner will be from that party, obviously.)
In the first use of this system this week, there are a few cases that could represent SNTV-style coordination failure. There will be several legislative races in which the November choice will come down to two candidates of the same party. Most of these are in districts with an entrenched incumbent who will happen to face a (token) intra-party challenger, so there is no coordination problem. There just is no opportunity for voters in November–who will be more numerous than they were in the first round–to register a partisan choice for one of the other parties. I will focus my attention, then, on a few cases in which the runoff contenders are from one party, and they did not combine for significantly more than half the first round votes. (This is not an exhaustive list.)
A particularly striking example occurred in US House District 8: The runoff will feature two Republicans, Paul Cook (15.5%) and Gregg Imus (15.0%). The third place candidate just missed qualifying for the runoff: Democrat Jackie Conway (14.7%). There were 11 other candidates, including a second Democrat who had 9.7%. While the combined votes of ten Republicans is over 70% and thus this was not a district a Democrat was likely to win, the Democratic Party nonetheless narrowly lost the right to even make their case to the general-election electorate.
In US House district 31, the top two candidates are both Republicans: Gary G. Miller (26.7%) and Bob Dutton (24.9%). There were four other candidates, all Democrats, and the top-scoring one, Pete Aguilar, had 22.8%, missing the runoff by just over 2 percentage points. While the two Republicans combined for a majority of the votes, they did so just barely, with 51.6%. It is not out of the question that a Democrat could have won this district–especially given the difference in turnout that we can expect, as well as the long gap between elections and the potential importance of candidate quality. But the Democrats will not get to make their case in this potentially winnable district.
In fact, this last example points to another potential pitfall of the system: even if some candidate wins a majority in the first round, there still must be a runoff. What will be really interesting is the first case in which the majority “winner” in round 1 loses round 2 due to the different turnout or other reasons. Something to watch for.
Naturally, if this is “part 2” there was also a part 1, complete with a pretty picture!