California’s STUPID electoral system, 2022 first round edition

Yesterday was the “primary” that is NOT a primary in California. As I tried to warn the good voters of the great California Republic back in 2010, this “top two” system would be a bad idea. Yesterday offers some further examples of why it is indeed a STUPID ELECTORAL SYSTEM.

My favorite current example is state Senate District 4 (yeah, we do boring district names here).

Source: CATarget on Twitter.

Nearly 56% of this district’s voters voted for candidates branded on the ballot as Republican. Yet, because this is NOT A PRIMARY, but is just a top-two runoff system, the voters will choose in November from two Democrats, whose combined vote total is just 44%. Brilliant!

(For Democrats, it almost looks like a successful contest under two-seat single nontransferable vote (SNTV), with the party coordinating to equalize on two candidates, but I won’t give them that much credit. As for Republicans, well, they just punted away a win for the taking in a body where they regularly struggle to win even one third of the total seats.)

Statewide, we may have an intraparty runoff in one contest, the one for Insurance Commissioner. When the count was at 75% reporting, it looked like this:

Note the close race for the second runoff slot, between a second Democrat and a Republican. In this case, even though I will not waver from my conviction that this is a STUPID ELECTORAL SYSTEM, I will be happy with the result if Levine faces Lara in the runoff. In fact, Levine was one of the few candidates on this whole LONG ballot that I actually voted for. Lara is very expendable, due to being somewhat ethically challenged. In fact, it is certainly not impossible to imagine him losing in November, even to a Republican. Anyway, regardless of how I feel about the specific candidates, the notion that the so-called general election would be between two candidates of the same party is a bug not a feature. That it is for a statewide contest makes it even more so. (It would not be the first time; in fact, twice we’ve had US Senate contests on a November ballot that were between two Democrats.)

In a subsequent update, with “100% reporting” Howell has pulled ahead. However, 100% does not mean the count is finished. Far from it! There is probably still a decent chance Levine will pull back ahead for the second runoff slot. If Levine pulls back into second place, the Republicans will have shot themselves in the foot by their almost perfect vote-equalization “strategy.” If one of the Republicans finishes ahead of Lara, I am going to be mildly upset at Eugene and JJJ for splitting the anti-Lara Democratic vote. Ah, the hazard of SNTV-style competition for two slots in an eventual one-seat contest!

Speaking of US Senate contests in California, we got two of them this time! No, it is not that both seats are open (as was the case here in 1992, or more recently in Arizona and Georgia); both votes were for the same seat. The incumbent, Alex Padilla, was appointed by Governor Gavin Newsom to the vacated seat, and state law requires that there be a special election at the next scheduled election to fill the unexpired portion of the term. So we voted on that, as well as on the new six-year term starting in 2023.

The image on the right is the unexpired term term, and it is on the back of the page that has the full term (image on left). This is confusing! There are also many fewer candidates for the partial term than for the full term. We get 23 of them for the full term!

I am actually not sure whether the rule in the partial term is top-two runoff, or if a majority on this ballot will suffice. [Update: both are same top-two rules; I’ll keep the rest of this paragraph as it was.] It is used to be the case, even before top two was adopted for all formerly partisan elections, that special elections could be over in one round if one of the candidates–with all, regardless of one party, running against each other–won over half. I do not know if that applies here, or if the top two automatically go to a runoff, as in the full term election. If a majority suffices, you technically could have someone sworn in right away to serve only till early January. If the runoff is required anyway, then the person elected for the partial term would serve for only a few weeks. Of course, it is moot. The appointed incumbent is sure to win both contests anyway. But this is another of those poorly thought out provisions of California election law that could produce a strange result (not as bad as the recall/replacement process, about which see what I wrote last year, but bad enough).

Another thing I was watching for was to see just how well Newsom would do. At the moment, he is all the way down to 56.3%, although that percentage could well creep up again. Just last year, NO on the recall got 61.9%. In the 2018 November runoff against a Republican, he won 62.0%. So he may be slipping! Okay, not by much. Even though he will easily win a majority in this round, we get to vote on him yet again in November. What a great democracy–a majority gets to proclaim it wants its governor three times in just over a year!

(Side note: If you add the votes of a few other token self-identified Democrats running for governor to Newsom’s total, you get 58.4%.)

His opponent will be Brian Dahle, a not so well known very far-right and evidently anti-vax Republican from one of the state’s most rural districts, way up on the Oregon and Nevada borders; in fact, as far as most Californians are concerned, it might as well be Idaho. (He is interesting in that he serves in the state senate while his wife, Megan Dahle, serves in the state assembly, in the seat Brian formerly held. They are farmers, so I have kind of followed their careers.)

And then my ballot also included this contest.

That’s right, we have just two candidates. But, of course, this is a top two election, so they both have already qualified for the November ballot just by showing up! WHAT A STUPID ELECTORAL SYSTEM.

As you can guess from the candidates’ indicated occupations–why do we even let candidates list their occupation on the ballot?–and as you would know from the “Fruits” side of this blog, this is very much an agricultural district. Aguiar-Curry makes ag policy a key part of her legislative behavior (so I follow her career, too!). She has been a walnut grower for years. Walnuts are a major crop here, as are wine grapes, as well as almonds, tomatoes, corn, sunflower…. the list is long.

(Funny aside, B. Dahle derides Newsom as a “wine salesman” but here we have a Republican candidate who proudly lists “winemaker” as one of his occupations on the ballot. Wine is big business in this state!)

For this state assembly contest, I was tempted to vote for one now and the other in November. Just because. But instead I decided to vote for neither.

I have never left so many parts of a ballot blank. So many candidates (26 for Governor, 23 for the full term Senate seat), so few I cared enough to vote for. WHAT A STUPID ELECTORAL SYSTEM, and what a disappointing excuse for a democracy the California Republic has.

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.