The impact of California’s electoral-system change

Many readers of this blog would be interested in a series of entries at Mischiefs of Faction on the early results of California’s electoral-system change. The entries are based on lengthier articles in a special issue of the California Journal of Politics and Policy.

From the Mischiefs of Faction summary:

top-two, passed by California voters in 2010 and operating in elections since 2012, creates a two-stage election system that replaces the usual primary-then-general system the state used to have. In the preliminary election (ostensibly a primary), voters may pick from any candidates of any party for each office, regardless of their party registration. The top two vote-getters from that election then go to a November runoff election, even if those candidates are of the same political party.

The findings, as we’ll see, are rather mixed, and what evidence we have that the top-two system has changed politics is pretty modest, at best. Yet as the studies note, it is still early; the new system may be encouraging a new type of candidate to run for office, but it’s just to soon to discern the effects of that.

18 thoughts on “The impact of California’s electoral-system change

  1. From what I’ve seen in Italy, Japan, Taiwan and similar cases, it takes at least a good two decades (~1 generation) until the intraparty effects of an electoral system change can observed in earnest, though my experience is of course far more limited that yours.

  2. It would better if California used some form of PR rather than the top 2 system. Would California be better with the French style 2 round system rather than the top two? NZ switch from FPTP to MMP from 1996 to the present shows the change of the party system does take a generation to get use to. NZ party system seems well consolidated compared to the fragmentation of the party system seem throughout Europe and Israel.

    • I’m no expert on these matters, but I would imagine that the reason that 2RS is not supported in California is that it would somewhat test the patience of voters to have them turn out for a primary, then turn out for the first round, and then another round if no candidate wins a majority in the first.

      • Do it like Louisiana does it then…the “primary” is in November and a second round is only held between the top two if no one gets majority.

      • I think that that is what is being used in California. I presume that Rob supported traditional two-round, when party nominees go into a two round election.

    • “Would California be better with the French style 2 round system rather than the top two?”

      There is a big difference? Yes, in France sometimes you can have a 2 round with 3 candidates, but usually the 3rd candidate quits (unless he is from the Front National), making very similar in practice.

      • Yes, of course, what California now has is two-round majority. So it is more like the French system than like what California had before. On the other hand, as Miguel notes, in France is is possible for more than two candidates to stand in the runoff. Even when only two do so (as is the norm), the fact that others could offers bargaining leverage (for cross-district cooperation and other trades) that is not possible when only two can continue.

        Some other differences–but I see these as variation within a family of two-round systems–are that in California there must be a second round even if someone won a majority in the first, and that both candidates in the second round can be from the same party. We have not yet had a case that I am aware of in which a candidate won a first-round majority and then lost the second round, but it could happen, given different turnout and the lengthy time in which new issues or a scandal could emerge. We have had several second rounds already with both candidates from the same party.

        In France, the runoff could feature candidates from the same bloc (I am not sure how often that actually happens, if ever), but because parties always (as far as I know) enter a single candidate in the first round, you would not have a second round–or the first, for that matter– be an intra-party contest.

      • In French presidential election of 1995, there was two candidats from the Gaullist party (Chirac and Balladour).

        But perhaps the big difference is a difference in the concept of “party”? What I want to say is that, in many ways, the meaning of “party” in the US is more similar to the meaning of “bloc” in Europe than to the meaning of “party” (perhaps the true “parties” – in the European sense – in the US are the organized factions – like the Rainbow Coalition or the Club for Growth – inside the Democrats and the Republicans)

  3. I think ballot access makes it very different. In the US top-two/blanket/jungle primary, as in any other type of primary in the US, anyone can register as member of any party and run with that party label next to one’s name. In France, presumably ballot access and use of the party label are tightly regulated, as in other European countries.

    • “Blanket” primary is not the same as top-two, at least as practiced in California. I am really not sure what “jungle primary” means, unless “jungle” means “not a”.

      Under a blanket primary, all candidates are listed on the primary ballot, allowing the voter to cast a vote for candidates of different parties in different offices. But there is still a general election that features the leading vote-getter from each registered party.

      We used to have a so-called blanket primary, but it was ruled unconstitutional (interfering with parties’ “association” rights, or something like that). So we just got rid of primaries altogether, even if we continue to put the term, “primary” on the new system, for old time’s sake.

      • Yes, I knew they were somehow distinct, but it was not clear to me how. ‘Jungle primary’ is another term I heard applied to Louisiana (formerly, I think), again with an unclear difference.

        My understanding is that the California blanket primary was found unconstitutional on account of candidates being able to freely use any party label, whereas under the new system they merely use ‘descriptions’ which are may be ‘GOP’ or ‘Democrat’ but only describe a personal preference, without any suggestion of formal sanction. The case in ‘California Democratic Party v. Jones’ (2000) was indeed that allowing anyone to use the party’s label (without first being selected) violated the party’s freedom of association.

        I think that using the same logic, you could make a case that all state-mandated primaries where all voters can register as voting member of a party (with no restrictions other than that you can’t be a member of more than one party) could be deemed unconstitutional. If the courts came to such a decision, the consequences for American party politics would potentially be very far-reaching indeed.

      • I think “jungle” is indeed used inconsistently. It is not exactly a term that is descriptive here.

        I recall the court decision being some combination of what I said earlier and what JD says here.

  4. What was the reason for California not to just use FPTP without the need of a primary? Who would benefit more from such an electoral system?

      • The ‘need’ for primaries is imposed by the same laws that regulate them and use of party labels. So it’s perfectly possible to have the election in a single round, without formal primaries, with party label use being as free as it is in California’s top-2 system (I believe this is essentially the same as in the Phillippines), or, alternatively, have a one-round general election with candidate selection and party label use being left entirely for party organisations to decide for themselves.

    • FPTP at 1 round without primaries will have the high risk of the elected candidate being less popular than some of the losers – this could also occur with 2 rounds (possibly happened in Egypt in 2012), but it is more difficult.

      In some way, perhaps the US system of primaries is nothing more than a peculiar kind of election in two rounds? And, going a bit further, perhaps the primaries for the presidential election (who are prolongued for almost half year, with some candidates exiting the race after every state primary) are, in practice, a kind of non-instant (and possibly more easily processed by human mind) Instant Runoff Voting?

      • The primary system is a good solution that the Progressive Movement came up with to make things more transparent. Nobody asks the question is that more voters are choosing not to belong to parties. The U.S doesn’t seem to have a two party system, but actually it has dominant party systems in certain states and regions, and only gives the impression that it is a two party system.

      • “perhaps the US system of primaries is nothing more than a peculiar kind of election in two rounds”
        Last year I ventured the suggestion that US primaries (outside Louisiana) are to normal runoffs as Brazilian/ Chilean/Finnish open-list PR is to SNTV. It was voted down.

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