Reforming the California recall-replacement process

What a relief. It turned out like the fundamentals of this state said it should all along. But the risk was high. Maybe those polls that showed the recall ahead or close were just rogues. But a process that lets a motivated minority potentially replace an effective but unexciting incumbent with someone elected by a small percentage of the vote is deeply undemocratic. 

It needs to be reformed before an extremist minority puts us through such an attempted power grab again, and maybe pulls it off. So this planting is all about brainstorming for some possible improvements to the process.

As I have noted before, I oppose recalls in principle, at least against the elected chief executive. I explained why in the first in my series on this recall. But for this discussion, I will assume we are stuck with a recall provision, and only focus on how it could be improved. I also am limiting myself to recalls of elected governors (or by extension, presidents), and not to all the other offices that are, or might be, subject to recall.

Minimal changes

The California process of initiating a recall is probably the most favorable to an incumbent’s opponents. Without undermining the principle of allowing the people to recall a governor, there are numerous ways the hurdle could be made higher. FiveThirtyEight has already done a helpful rundown of how California’s provisions compare to those of other US states.

Possible reforms, drawn from experiences of other states, include raising the petition signature requirement (currently just 12% of the number of voters who participated in the previous gubernatorial election) and shortening the time during which petitions can circulate (currently 160 days).

While reforms of this sort are probably a good idea, they are very minimal. There are more fundamental problems with the process, once qualified. These problems do not go away unless the qualification becomes so onerous that effectively a recall election is never triggered. And while some tightening of the criteria may now be likely, it is unlikely the conditions will be greatly restricted.

Somewhat more significant changes for recall

Somewhat more significant options including requiring a claim of malfeasance, rather than we just do not like you, as a basis for petitioning for a recall, or requiring a supermajority to vote in favor of the recall. I do not think the first of these ideas is easily enforceable. (What are the criteria, and who decides if they have been met and so an election is triggered?)

The supermajority idea is attractive. Obviously, a supermajority privileges the status quo, and that is why I normally do not approve of such rules other than perhaps for constitutional changes. Yet in a system based on fixed terms, privileging the status quo is not such a bad idea–the officeholder serves his or her original term unless a strict condition for termination has been met. Nonetheless, I would be concerned about the continued legitimacy and effectiveness of a governor whom a majority of voters–but less than three fifths or two thirds or whatever–had voted to oust.

One could also set a rule that says the recall has not succeeded unless it obtains a majority that is also a greater number of voters than originally voted for the governor in the last election. This is de-facto a supermajority requirement, but it sets the threshold according to the existing electoral base of the incumbent instead of at a fixed level. I retains the same problems I noted with a specific supermajority threshold, but I do rather like the idea nonetheless. See Frozen Garlic for a good statement of the general principle “that recalling an elected official should be significantly harder than electing that same official”; the post has some specific suggestions for implementing that principle. That blog is about elections in Taiwan, where there are recalls and there is a turnout requirement for it to be valid (but it is low, at 25%).

Reforms to the replacement election

Here is where the most important changes could be made. Currently, all state officeholders in California are elected by majority in a “top two” runoff election–unless they are replacing a recalled officeholder. Per Section 5(a) of the California Constitution, “The candidates who are the top two vote-getters at a voter-nominated primary election for a congressional or state elective office shall, regardless of party preference, compete in the ensuing general election.” However, Section 15(c), regarding recalls, says “If the majority vote on the question is to recall, the officer is removed and, if there is a candidate, the candidate who receives a plurality is the successor. The officer may not be a candidate…”

An obvious solution is to clean up this contradiction. Why should a replacement be eligible to be elected by only a plurality when the officeholder being replaced was elected by a majority? This violates the previously articulated principle by making it easier to replace than to initially elect. Among the strange things about recall-replacement elections in this state is that there is no primary. Of course, readers of this site know that we do not have primaries at all anymore (other than for presidential nominating delegates). What Section 5(a) calls a “primary” is actually not a primary; it is just the first round of a two-round majority election in which party affiliation is not a criterion regarding who advances to the runoff (as quoted previously, “regardless of party preference”). In any case, how we label this process is not the point–important though it is!. The point is that there is a prior qualifying round for general elections, but not for the special election that chooses a replacement. This should be corrected.

Any correction should also resolve the current undemocratic “trainwreck” criterion that a replacement can win fewer votes than the recalled officer had not merely when previously elected but also in the same election. If a majority is required to elect the replacement, this problem is mostly solved. But how to do it? Here are a few possibilities.

(1) Replicate the current general-election process, that is, have a preliminary round (“primary”) and then a top-two runoff, in the event a majority has voted to recall the incumbent.

A key problem with this is it could result in having three special election dates to complete the process: the recall, then if a majority votes for it, a qualifying election, and then if no candidate wins a majority, a runoff. Such a proposal is not likely to fly.

(2) An alternative would be to hold the qualifying round concurrent with the recall question. If the recall passes by majority, but no single replacement candidate wins a majority, then there is a top-two runoff a few weeks later. This would turn a potentially three-round process into a maximum of two, and might still allow it to be over in one round.

If this option were chosen, I would explicitly permit the recalled officer to run in the qualifying round on the same day. If he or she is one of the top two, then the recalled official proceeds to the runoff against a single challenger. If a majority votes to retain the previously recalled governor, so be it. A majority has decided it did not see a single replacement who was better than the incumbent after all. (This sub-option that I suggest is not necessary for the general principle of two rounds to be adopted.)

(3) Yet another possibility is to dispense with the recall question altogether. A successfully qualified recall petition simply triggers a special election in which the incumbent may stand alongside whatever replacement candidates have qualified. The incumbent survives unless a single replacement candidate earns a majority of votes cast. It is all over in one round, and on one question. It would have the advantage of forcing coordination among the opponents, because they need a majority and get only one chance at it.

A potential flaw is the incumbent could survive without even a plurality if coordination fails and there are many candidates, which raises those legitimacy questions again. But the goal is to make it hard to replace, not hard to continue. A twist would be to say there is a runoff if and only if the incumbent finishes second or worse to a challenger who has fallen short of a majority. (Such a runoff probably should include the incumbent even if he or she finished lower than second, but I don’t feel strongly about that particular sub-option.)

By now, some readers will be impatient that I have not mentioned the ranked-choice option. Okay, here you go.

(4) Using ranked-choice voting (RCV) is a simple solution that could be done in one round of voting either with, or without, two questions. The smallest change would be to have two separate questions like we currently do, but the replacement is by ranked-choice voting (alternative vote). A better–I think–option would be the single question: rank as many of the following candidates, including the incumbent, as you wish.

I do not favor these RCV options because we have seen we can have dozens of candidates enter. Asking voters to rank a huge field, where at least the major out-party may have several candidates, is asking a lot of the voters. Moreover, with many candidates, many voters will not rank them all, and the chances are high that the winner will still have only a plurality. This is a general problem with RCV in an effectively non-partisan context (i.e. when multiple parties have not each pre-selected a single candidate). I do not favor this, although I recognize it as an improvement over the status quo. Almost anything would be.

Abolish the replacement election

We have a Lieutenant Governor. The main point of such an office is to replace the incumbent Governor if the latter is unable to discharge his or her duties. If a recall passes, have the Lt.Gov. take over and there is no need to have a special replacement election. This makes a great deal of sense, and I’d be happy with it. Voters might not be, and so its chance of being enacted as a constitutional reform in California is likely not high.

Think big

As I explained earlier (see first linked post), one of my objections to gubernatorial (or presidential) recall is that it targets one officeholder. If we are talking impeachment for malfeasance, that’s fine. But in reality, a recall is a just another political process–even more than impeachment, which is also political. If the objection of the potential majority in favor of recall is discontent with policy, the problem is clearly not only with one person. So recall them all! Have a recall process that simply initiates an early election for the entire legislature as well as the governor. Sort of like an early dissolution in a parliamentary system. Go back to the people and get new policymakers, or if the voters prefer, reelect them all.

I do not actually favor this. But I mention to make a point–recalls are about attempting to reset the terms of delegation from voters to their agents in government. So it sensibly should not be used to target a single individual (again, unless there is some process specifically targeting only a corrupt individual officeholder).

So there you have it. These are the ideas I have come up. What are yours? What do you think of these? We desperately need to change this process before a minority power grab succeeds in the future, but how?

There is a California National Party candidate in the gubernatorial replacement election

I remember back at the time of the 2003 California gubernatorial recall election, one of my laments was that, with so many candidates on the replacement portion of the ballot, not one of them was a secessionist/sovereigntist. Well, this time, no such lament!

I recently learned that there is a sovereigntist candidate this time. His name is Michael Loebs, who in his day job is a lecturer in political science at San Francisco State University. He is running with the California National Party, which has styled itself on the model of the Scottish National Party. (Because the state restricts what party names can appear on the ballot even though party affiliations are self-declared by candidates, he appears as “no party”.)

I am not posting this to have a conversation about whether California should have an active movement for (peaceful) separation, although I have felt such leanings myself for about as long as I have been politically aware. Nor do I use this space to endorse candidates. I am simply happy that, if we have to have this trainwreck of a recall/replacement election, at least we finally have a sovereigntist candidate in the mix.

Of course, I will vote NO on the recall regardless of my vote on the replacement question. In fact, you can call NO on the recall an endorsement!

California’s recall & replacement rules are a trainwreck waiting to happen, but are they unconstitutional?

As the voting is underway in the California gubernatorial recall election against Gavin Newsom, polls are showing it quite close. While the no-recall side leads, and objectively Newsom should be expected to prevail in such a strong Democratic Party-aligned state, it is far from a sure thing. In my earlier planting on this topic, I said that, “rather than learn the lessons of its irrelevance in this state, the California Republican Party has learned a different lesson. While it may not win state power the normal way, it can harness grievance, the possible low turnout of a special election, and a celebrity to pick off a Democratic governor now and then.”

As the campaign–such as it is–has developed since my writing those words in late April, it is clear that it is indeed all about grievance and hardly about governance. It is also still at risk of being a low turnout affair, which is where the threat to Newsom’s tenure rests. Will enough Democrats mail back their ballots marked NO, when all the enthusiasm is on the side of the terminally aggrieved?

What there is not in this contest is a celebrity on the replacement side of the ballot. Unless Larry Elder counts. He is leading the polls as the replacement candidate. (I had never heard of him till a month or so ago, and anecdotally, I sense that most folks who don’t listen to right-wing talk radio likewise did not know who he was. On the other hand, I certainly knew who Arnold Schwarzenegger was long before he ran for governor. So, no, Larry Elder does not count as a celebrity, at least not in a qualitatively meaningful sense.)

And therein lies the problem from a small-d democratic perspective: the rules of how California runs this type of election have always been a trainwreck waiting to happen, and such a train wreck of democracy just might happen this time. While the recall question on the ballot is a YES/NO option and thus will be decided by a majority of votes cast, the replacement option on the ballot has 46 candidates, and the winner will be the one with a plurality of votes, if the YES wins the first question. Elder leads polling by a wide margin, but with not even 25% of the vote. If we take his current polling level as a share of the decided vote, it is still only around 40%. Moreover, with no Democrat (or rather none with any hint of visibility) running on the replacement side, there are likely to be quite a few voters who vote NO but then do not select a replacement candidate. In other words, if Newsom loses a close contest, his replacement could be elected by significantly fewer votes than Newsom himself earned on the NO side. California now requires a majority for election of all other offices in the state in general elections (under the “top-two” rule), but a replacement special election is still decided by plurality (and with no party primaries).

This outcome–a sub-majority election of a candidate with less voter support than the recalled incumbent, and which can’t be discounted as fantasy–would be a massive miscarriage of democracy, whatever one’s opinion of Newsom (or Elder). But could be it also be unconstitutional? That is the claim made in the New York Times by Erwin Chemerinsky and Aaron S. Edlin. They build their case on US Supreme Court jurisprudence on one person, one vote. Two cases from 1964 (Wesberry v. Sanders and Reynolds v. Sims) concerned state legislative and congressional districts, ruling against malapportionment in these districting plans on the grounds that it denied voters equal influence on outcomes.

The claim of Chemerinsky and Edlin is that this logic can be extended to a gubernatorial recall and replacement, under the rules California uses: “If Mr. Newsom is favored by a plurality of the voters, but someone else is elected, then his voters are denied equal protection. Their votes have less influence in determining the outcome of the election.”

While I agree with the principle, I am dubious it rises to a constitutional issue, even if we did not have a SCOTUS that was dominated by Republicans.

Please read their argument and tell me if I am wrong to be skeptical of the constitutional claim (independent of the likelihood of the Court actually offering redress if this is the outcome of the election).

Poor recall

It is now all but certain that there will be a recall election later in 2021 against California Governor Gavin Newsom. I oppose recall elections in principle, but this one is especially silly and likely counterproductive for its own promoters.

Recall elections only exacerbate the worst features of the presidential (including gubernatorial) form of government, in that they increase the already inevitably high personalization of the political process of such a system. As if all of what makes for (in)effective government and policy-making can be put on one individual.

In the particular case of Newsom, it is silly in that the number one issue the state (and all governments) have had to face over the past 15 months is the pandemic, and California actually has fared better than other large US states. Is that entirely due to Newsom? No, see my comment about the risks of personalizing government. But he probably deserves some credit.

Its promoters are, of course, Republicans. The Republican Party is so completely out of step with this state that it needs internal reform to make itself competitive again. One might think this would be the lesson it would learn from having won vote percentages in the low thirties in the last two presidential elections and having elected no statewide official since 2006. Newsom himself was elected with 61.9% of the vote in 2018. In recent cycles, the Republicans have struggled to win even a third of the seats in either house of the state legislature.

However, rather than learn the lessons of its irrelevance in this state, the California Republican Party has learned a different lesson. While it may not win state power the normal way, it can harness grievance, the possible low turnout of a special election, and a celebrity to pick off a Democratic governor now and then. But this isn’t the California of 2003, and neither Caitlyn Jenner nor Randy Quaid, nor any of the others in the “clown car” of candidates looks ready to be the next Governator.

As an institutional device, recalls sit poorly with the separate origin (and, normally, survival) of executive and legislative organizations that defines presidentialism. If you need a mechanism to enable early elections, logically you should have a fresh mandate for the legislature, too. Better yet, use parliamentary government (and if you also use proportional representation, you have the greater likelihood that the resulting coalition governments dissolve midterm when political conditions change, and early elections result). In a presidential/gubernatorial system, they just reinforce the worst aspect of the system–their personalization of the executive, and their potential for “populist” solutions. And I say that as someone who thought Arnold Schwarzenegger was a pretty good governor (although I voted against the recall of then-Governor Gray Davis, I voted for the new governor’s reelection in 2006). Or, rather, he was pretty good only after a rocky first year, which only buttresses my point about personalization and populism. He tried to govern by shear force of personality (and he has an unusual measure of that!) and through popular initiatives, including calling a special election for some of them. When it did not work, he eventually learned how to be a governor. The state can’t afford on-the-job training and exercises in populism as it emerges from the pandemic. This specific recall is an even worse idea than the institution of recall is generally.

It is nearly sure that it will fail, at great expense. And it likely will only push Newsom and the Democratic Party father to the left and into ever-greater embrace of unions and other constituent groups, while making the Republican brand even more toxic in the state. Not that I care too much about the latter. The California Republican Party can go hang itself. And if you’d rather replace that verb with another more pointed one, feel free.

California 2020

We Californians are known for our ballot propositions. Twelve of them in this election. Too many!

I voted last week. Or at least I think I voted. The ballot went into a box that looked legitimate. I’ve never been fond of absentee/mail voting (except for those who have no other choice). In fact, I have never done it, being committed to the idea of going to an actual polling place. But, this year is… different.

I have some thoughts on a few of them. I don’t usually do “endorsements” in part because I wonder why anyone would actually care how I would vote (unless perhaps if it was an electoral system measure). But I want to mention a few of these that I feel somewhat strongly about.

Yes on 18. Back in the year I turned 18, I was of age to vote by the time the general election came around, but I was not able to vote in the primary. I remember at the time, there was talk of a change to allow those who will be 18 before the general election to vote in the primary even if their 18th birthday was between the elections. That is so very sensible. Finally, we get to vote this change into the state constitution.

I am genuinely puzzled that so many newspapers across the state have advised a no vote on 18. I understand why the GOP is against–it is an anti-democratic party (and an anti-republican one), so one of its core principles is: more voters = bad. But I can’t imagine any good argument against this, especially now that we no longer have primaries (except for presidential-nominating delegates). We have a two-round general election. If you are eligible to choose from among the final two, you should be eligible to vote to winnow the initial field. Simple as that.

I voted no on Prop. 22 (re app-based services). At the outset I sort of leaned yes. But the more I learned, the more strongly I was against. Whatever the merits of the policy proposal, the following is a real deal killer: Amendments by the legislature would take a 7/8 vote. I am against super-majority requirements for detailed policy provisions on principle, but usually such requirements are 3/5 or 2/3. But SEVEN EIGHTHS. Absurd! 

I also generally oppose initiatives that are mostly about one interest group trying to convince voters to do what it has already lost in both the legislature and the courts. (Which suggests the proposal is probably not good on the merits, either.) In this case, it is mostly a carve-out for a few specific companies. It’s not about the drivers, despite the slick advertising prominently featuring people of color and single mothers. It is about some companies that are obviously doing quite well if they are able to afford all this advertising. 

Here are some example of their advertising in the form of mailers we have received. See what I mean by their prominent featuring of individuals who are clearly intended to invoke progressive sympathies?

As I said, the measure is not actually about the drivers. It is about some companies trying to bypass the regular policy-making process. (Yes, an initiative is also part of the legitimate policy-making process, but we voters don’t have to go along!)

Also–going out of order here–I decided to vote yes on 15. The advertising from those against has really been over the top.

“Wrong side of history”? And scare tactics are always a nice touch: “homeowners are next.” So if someone comes back with a later proposition that will hurt homeowners, what can we do? Oh, I know. We can vote no on that (highly hypothetical) measure.

In the case of both 15 and 18, these are things I have been waiting to vote for my entire voting life! Prop. 15 creates a split roll for property taxes (a long overdue fix to Prop. 13 of 1978) and Prop. 18, as discussed above, lets 17 year olds vote in the first-round election if they will be 18 by the time of the November second-round election.

For any voters who have not yet made their decisions, I highly recommend the California Choices website. It has links to details of all the propositions, and scorecards of endorsements from newspapers, political parties, non-profits, and unions.

The strategic voters’ nightmare that is US Democrats’ “proportional” system

With a “front runner” who so far is not mustering more than a quarter of the vote in polling aggregates (e.g., both Fivethirtyeight and Economist), and four other candidates in the 10%–20% range (here with some variation between different aggregators), it is a good thing the Democratic Party uses proportional representation to choose its nominating-convention delegates. Right?

Well, not this “proportional” system. I will now leave aside those zany rules of the Iowa caucus or the marginally more rational rules of the Nevada caucus, and focus on the closest thing we will get to a national primary: “Super Tuesday”. Specifically, I will focus on California for the the obvious reason that it is the biggest. And happens to be where I live and vote. Other states have broadly similar systems, but for smaller numbers of delegates.

This is one awful example of “proportional representation” (PR). Why? First, because it is not really PR due to the high threshold. Second, because it is ridiculously complex. Third (and flowing from the first two), because it is nearly impossible to know how one should make effective use of one’s vote.

My premise is to assume a voter wants to vote against Sanders. (Any resemblance to any particular actual voter may be coincidental. Or not.) With so many candidates still in the mix, one could at least feel good that it in a big state with a lot of delegates, the proportional allocation will mean your vote is not wasted. It could help select some delegates for whichever non-Sanders candidate the voter selects.

But that is not the case at all.

First, there is the threshold. It is set at 15%, which is extremely high. It is all the worse when, as noted already, so many trailing candidates are at risk of falling below 15%. It is not out of the question that all of California’s delegates could go to Sanders even if he has just 32% of the vote, as in a recent PPIC poll. That poll has Biden in second with only 14%. A delegate sweep is not the most likely outcome (8% are undecided, and many might be weakly supportive of their current choice and thinking strategically, like our hypothetical voter), but it is possible. One hundred percent of the delegates on a third of the vote certainly would not be a  “proportional” outcome!

Then there is the districting. Obviously, we know from studies of electoral systems for actual proportional representation systems that having many districts, and low-moderate district magnitude (number of seats–here, delegates–per district) reduces proportionality. On the other hand, if a candidate is just below 15% statewide, the districting might help that candidate, to the extent that there is regional variation in support. Failing to clear the statewide threshold does not preclude getting delegates in a district, as long as the candidate is above 15% in any given district, and that the magnitude of that district is large enough for the candidate to get a delegate with whatever his or her vote share is in the district.

The statewide delegates amount to around 35% of all the delegates awarded in California: 144 of the 415 total. In electoral system terms, the allocation is in parallel, not compensatory like many two-tier proportional systems. That is, a candidate who clears 15% gets a “proportional” share of the statewide delegates and adds on to this whatever number of delegates he or she has won in districts.

A statewide district of M=144 seems huge, right? Well, this being the Democratic Party, they have to make it further complicated. There are two statewide districts, in parallel with each other as well as with the many sub-state districts. The magnitudes are still large, at 54 and 90. (The former are the PLEO, or pledged leaders and elected officials.)

The districts for delegate selection are the state’s districts for the US House. They vary in magnitude for delegate purposes according to recent Democratic voting history in the district. California has 53 districts, and they vary in magnitude from 4 to 7. There are only two districts (numbers 12 and 13) that elect 7. The mean magnitude is 5.1. See the California Democratic Party Delegate Selection Plan (pp. 14-15 of the linked PDF) for the number per district.

(The Plan has no description of the specific allocation formula that I could find, but maybe I missed it; see also GreenPapers.)

So what should our totally hypothetical anti-Sanders voter do? Ideally, figure out which of the other (acceptable) candidates is above 15% in his or her district. Better yet, figure out which one might be marginal for a delegate. That would be a strategic vote based on local support and the district’s magnitude. But it is not as if such information is widely available. One can guess off district demographics, or noisy signals like local offices for the campaigns or yard signs, etc.

The PPIC poll has a regional breakdown within California. But the “regions” are blunt categories–Los Angeles, Other Southern California, SF Bay Area, and Other. There is some considerable variation, even with the caveat that we have 53 districts but four regions. Sanders leads in Los Angeles with 36% and the next up is Biden, at 16%. In Other Southern California they are on 41% and 15%, with Buttigieg also on 15% (the latter supposedly has just 9% in LA). SF Bay Area also has Sanders leading with only 31% and the next closest is Warren at 18% and then Bloomberg at 14%. If, like me, you are in “Other” it is really a mess! We have Warren 18%, Biden 17%, Sanders 16%, Buttigieg 14% (also 11% unknown, higher than other regions). Of course, a lot of these are in the margin of error of the threshold, and each other, and further district-level variation within each region is likely.

So maybe the best is just to figure out which ones are likely to be close to, or “securely” above 15% statewide. Forget the district, and focus on those two large magnitudes at the state level, in which small vote shifts for above-threshold candidates actually could change the delegate totals.

The previous numbers are based on only one poll, of course. There is too little polling of this state. The FiveThirtyEight estimate for California is a little different: 27% Sanders, 16% Bloomberg, 14% Biden, 11% Warren, 10% Buttigieg. (The total for all listed candidates gets us to 89%, so 11% undecided.) Given the paucity of polling, these estimates are based not only on polls, but also on national trends adjusted for state demographics. And, as noted earlier, it risks no one but Sanders being over the threshold, even if that is not in the end a likely scenario, in part because allocating or removing undecideds likely puts at least a couple of other candidates over 15%. Plus, as mentioned, there will be some degree of regional variation that can make a sub-15% candidate statewide be well above that level in a district. But also, remember: many districts have a magnitude so low that even 15% locally would not be enough for a district delegate!

Or there’s voting sincerely. What a concept. Since I don’t like any of these candidates, that would mean staying home. But I don’t want to do that!

California statewide election vote totals

All of the offices elected statewide in California now have only two candidates in the November election, due to the “top two” runoff system. However, because the first round is no longer a primary in which various parties can pick nominees for the November ballot, the contests can feature two candidates of the same party or one or more independents instead of candidates of one or the other major party. (This is also true of district contests like US House and state legislative seats.)

Thus I thought I would exploit these features–constant number of candidates, but variable affiliations–to probe how a party’s failure to place a candidate in the top two affects voting. I am not claiming any causality or doing any subtle analysis here. Just blunt comparisons of statewide totals, which are suggestive.

Two contests, including Lt. Governor and US Senator, featured two Democrats. One featured a Democrat and a non-party candidate. One contest features two non-party candidates, because the state constitution mandates that the Superintendent of Public Instruction (SPI) is a non-partisan post. (This is the one office that could be decided in the June first round; it is a straightforward majority-runoff system.)

The bottom data row averages the Democratic and Republican votes across the five races that were Democrat vs. Republican. The right-most data column indicates how the votes cast compare to the governor’s race: a ratio of the vote total in a given race over votes cast for governor. Not surprisingly, governor drew the highest total.

We can see that the average Democrat won just over 5.1 million votes and the average Republican 3.1 million, in contests that had one and only one candidate of each of these two parties. Moreover, all the contests that were D:R straight fights had roughly 98% of the votes of the governor’s race.

On the other hand, if there were two Democrats, the total was under 90% of the governor total (83% for the Lt.Gov and 88.5% for the US Senate). This obviously is partly because many Republican-leaning voters simply skipped the intra-party Democratic contest. (The SPI race, where I believe both candidates were actually Democrats, has a similar ratio.) Nonetheless, that is not the entire story, as the total for the two Democrats in both these races is a lot more than the average single Democrat, at the same time as the leading Democrat did considerably worse than the average single Democrat. In other words, at the same time as Democrats split their own votes across their two candidates, clearly the candidates also picked up some Republican votes. This would be really interesting to investigate on a more granular basis.

Finally, the Insurance Commissioner race is notable. The “no party” candidate in the race is actually a Republican. In fact, he served under that party affiliation in the office before. But candidates choose, before the June first round, what party “preference” to indicate on the ballot (from the approved list), or whether to indicate no party preference. In this contest, the Democrat got far below the average for his party. It could be that there are Democratic-leaning voters who remember Poizner and think he did a good job, although he left the office in 2011, so I have some doubts. Alternatively, it could be that not running under the party label is a good strategy for a Republican in this state. He did not win, but he did get 49.0% of the votes, running around half a million votes ahead of the Republican gubernatorial candidate and around 700k ahead of the average Republican on the statewide ballot. Maybe other candidates of the weaker party in the race will hide their party label in the future, given the current electoral system makes it possible to be one of the top two without a stated party preference.

California Prop. 7: NO!!!!

One of the odder measures on the California ballot in some time (which is indeed saying something) is this year’s Proposition 7. It is a vote to confirm a bill passed by the state legislature earlier in 2018; because it repeals provisions of an earlier initiative (from 1949), it requires voter approval.

Some of the measure is technical “clean up”–for instance, the act on the books currently gives the dates of Daylight Savings Time (DST) as distinct from what is being done in practice, in conformity with federal law. For instance,

The [1949] act also requires, from 1 a.m. on the last Sunday of April, until 2 a.m. on the last Sunday of October, the standard time within the state to be one hour in advance of United States Standard Pacific Time. […]

The bill [Prop. 7] would require the advancement of this time by one hour during the daylight saving time period commencing at 2 a.m. on the 2nd Sunday of March of each year and ending at 2 a.m. on the first Sunday of November of.each year…

The March-November application of DST is what we are actually doing, as mandated by federal law (aside from Arizona and other states or portions thereof that do not use DST at all).

But then comes the part to which I strenuously object. Prop. 7:

(c) Notwithstanding subdivision(b) [concerning the current DST period], the Legislature may amend this section by a two-thirds vote to change the dates and times ofthe daylight saving time period, consistent with federal law, and, if federal law authorizes the state to provide for the year-round application of daylight saving time, the Legislature may amend this section by a two-thirds vote to provide for that application.

In other words, the objective of the sponsors of this measure is to change California, way out here on the Pacific Coast, to the equivalent of Mountain Standard Time year round. We would be on the same time zone in the winter months as Colorado and western South Dakota. It does not make a lot of sense.

For example, under the shift to so-called DST, in early January San Francisco would be looking at sunrise times of 8:25 a.m. That’s awfully late to see daylight; that’s a lot people with typical morning job or school start times out on the road in what will be only very low light at at time when most normal people’s body clocks are still barely out of sleep mode. I struggle to figure out why this is a good idea. (For the record, in Rapid City, SD, near the far eastern edge of the Mountain time zone, and much farther north, sunrise is at 7:27 MST in early January. The time zones do have some logic to them, as currently set up!)

I am old enough to remember when we were going to do DST for a full year nationwide for alleged energy savings in the 1970s. It was considered such a bad experiment that it was suspended, and we went back to standard time, well before the planned end. (Those were the days, when Congress could act quickly on a national issue.)

Really, we should go back to what it says in the original 1949 California act, which was six months on DST (more accurately “summer time”), six months off. That makes too much sense! If we have to get rid of time changes, which apparently bother some people and have some negative impacts, then stick to Pacific Standard Time all year. But this proposal to, in effect, move the state to the Mountain Standard Time zone all year is just DUMB. Please, Californians reading this, vote NO on 7!

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.