California primaries: Myth of the ‘independents’

By JD Mussel

Paul Mitchell of Capitol Weekly’s CA120 column tells the rather farcical story of the more than 100,000 Californian voters who thought they were registering to vote as independents and ended up voting in the American Independent Party’s presidential primary.

The American Independent Party is the far-right outfit originally established by Alabama segregationist George Wallace for his 1968 presidential run (which was aimed at sending the election to the House of Representatives). They ended up choosing Trump as their nominee this year, though he didn’t even appear on the ballot for the primary. I didn’t know California allowed electoral fusion before I noticed this dual nomination on the sample ballot I got in the mail last week[1].

[1] Yes, I have moved! I have now joined MSS at the University of California, Davis where I started my graduate studies last month.

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.

California’s Prop 37: GM foods labelling

The following are some loosely organized thoughts about an initiative measure on California’s ballot, Proposition 37. The proposal is for a requirement to label foods sold in the state that contain–or potentially contain–genetically modified (GM) ingredients.

As someone who has grown organic, usually buys organic, and has some belief (which I can’t claim to be proven) of an allergy to some GM products, I would be inclined towards a yes vote. However, this is not an easy one for me, because there are numerous problems with the measure.

When I look at the list of supporters and opponents, I don’t really like those I’d be siding with if I voted no. If we look upon it as a battle of organized interests over distribution of rents, I’ll go with the organic industry over Monsanto and DuPont every time. But if we’re concerned about good government and sensible consumer-information provision, it’s an easy no.

This is a bad way to go about labelling. Prop 37 has zero tolerance for GM traces, ((Much of this paragraph is based on my reading of the proposal itself (see first link above), and some of it on a report by researchers at the Giannini Foundation of Agricultural Economics at UC Davis.)) which means the standard for commingling will be stricter for conventionally grown foods than for organic. The EU and Australia/New Zealand standards allow trace amounts, and it’s almost impossible to avoid some cross-contamination. So almost every non-organic item will bear the label, if 37 passes. What use is that? It’s better to have a standard for “GM free” (but not organic, given that organic us GM-free, within the allowed tolerance) than to label almost everything conventional as (potentially) having GMO. And, of course, there already exist third-party certifications for GMO-free, or you can buy organic. On the other hand, if you agree that our political system has been mostly deaf to calls for stricter standards–as I do–then it’s an easy yes. To me, a yes vote is more a crying out for political attention than a vote for the specific set of standards this would impose.

Fortunately, as far as I can tell. Prop 37 doesn’t have an amendment clause preventing legislative adjustment. One principle I adhere to in most propositions is vote no, whatever the seeming merits, if only a subsequent initiative can amend the proposition. Others require 2/3 votes of the legislature to amend–also bad, but not as bad. I don’t see any such clause in this one, which I think means it would be just like an ordinary statute.

I also dislike, on principle, prop 37’s clause allowing lawsuits against retailers without a “harm” standard.

Further, I dislike that dried fruits are classified as “processed” and therefore subject to labeling requirement. It won’t affect me, because I eat only organic fruits, usually grown right under my own watchful eye. But on principle, this just is non-sensical. (The “processing” designation also applies to smoking, canning, and other preparations that involve only the fruit or vegetable, which is not how I think of “processed foods” more generally.)

I will probably end up voting yes, despite my very significant reservations. It will be a political vote for me, not a policy vote. And that’s all right; as long as we have this nutty initiative process, I might as well vote to push things in a direction I favor, even if the measure is very far from perfect. If I were to learn before Tuesday that I am wrong in my belief that this could be amended by future action of the legislature, I might vote no. For sure, there will be “amendments” from the courts, but that certainly doesn’t make this initiative particularly unusual.

San Francisco to repeal ranked-choice voting?

I am passing along the following action alert, dated 15 June, from Californians for Electoral Reform:

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors will, as early as June 26th, consider placing on the November ballot a charter amendment that will repeal RCV for all city-wide elections (Mayor, Sheriff, District Attorney, City Attorney, Treasurer, Assessor-Recorder, and Public Defender), replacing them with a two-round runoff. The first election will be held in September; if no candidate receives 65% or more of the vote (yes, it establishes a 65% winning threshold), the top two go on to a November runoff, seven or eight weeks after the first election. (RCV is kept for the Board of Supervisor elections.)

We need you to contact your Supervisor and tell them why you are opposed to it and ask them to vote against putting it on the ballot. We especially need people who live in District 5, Supervisor Olague’s district, to lobby her, as she may be the swing vote on this issue.

If you don’t know what district you live in, this link should help you.

Some talking points can be found at www.sfbetterelections.com

Additional things to note: San Francisco isn’t used to voting in September; turnout will be abysmally low.

Eight weeks isn’t enough time to certify the first election and get runoff ballots to military and overseas voters. (In some years, such as 2015, there will only be seven weeks between the elections.)

Every year in which we vote for Governor there will be *three* elections: the June statewide primary, the September San Francisco election, and the November general/City runoff election. Talk about voter fatigue, what about poll-worker fatigue!

Please note that the Board of Supervisors will NOT be taking public testimony at the meeting(s) where they consider this issue, as they took public testimony in yesterday’s Rules Committee hearing. Contacting your Supervisor personally is now the best way to make your voice heard. (In addition, you can write the Board, but please contact your Supervisor.)

Thanks,
–Steve Chessin
President, Californians for Electoral Reform
www.cfer.org

California’s new electoral system, part 2

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!

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.

Oakland’s mayoral election

Concurrent with the statewide general and national midterm elections earlier this month, the city of Oakland, California, elected its mayor. For the first time, the city used the Alternative Vote (instant runoff). The result was a bit of a surprise, in that longtime Democratic Party powerhouse Don Perata was expected to win. However, he lost to Jean Quan, who will be the city’s first woman and first Asian-American mayor.

From the San Francisco Chronicle:

When first-place votes were initially counted after the Nov. 2 election, Quan had just 24 percent, and Perata had 35 percent. But Quan proved to be a more popular second and third choice among supporters of the other eight candidates, and in the end, she had 51 percent to Perata’s 49 percent.

This is, of course, exactly how the system is supposed to work: ensure the election of the majority-supported candidate in the event that the candidate with the most first-preference votes is short of 50%+1 of the total votes cast. But the Perata camp is not amused. His political consultant called ranked-choice voting “an injustice” and the result a “travesty” because his candidate won 78% of the precincts, and led by a margin of 10 percentage points.

“In any other contest, it would be a landslide win, not an election loss.”

Normally, even in the realm of first-past-the-post elections, we do not think of plurality candidates with 35% as landslide winners, but Perata himself said:

“I don’t understand how ranked-choice voting works.”

Obviously!

Just as obviously, Quan did.

Quan had been campaigning for months for people to vote for “anybody but Don.” She had told supporters to list City Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan as their second choice.

Kaplan, in turn, told her supporters and others to list Quan second or third.

The strategy paid off for Quan when Kaplan, who finished third, was eliminated and her votes redistributed. Quan won 75 percent of them – pushing her from a 10,372-vote deficit to a 2,058-vote victory.

Perata, the Chronicle notes, never told supporters whom they should list second or third. And, apparently, never appealed for any other candidates’ second choices. Stupid strategy, given the electoral system.