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Opinion
Jonathan Bernstein

What Did We Learn From Tuesday’s Primaries?

Recalls, fraud obsessions and administrative burdens: A few themes are emerging from this year’s elections.

Warning sign?

Warning sign?

Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Getty

Here’s a quick look around another primary night. This time seven states voted, including primaries in most and also a slow-reporting first-round election in California’s top-two system. Three points that I noticed:

1. We’re going to hear a lot from Republicans over the next few weeks about how voters don’t care about the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6 last year or about former President Donald Trump’s attempts to stay in office despite losing the election. For the most part, I think they’re correct. Voters tend to not care about lots of important things, after all. Or, more accurately, lots of important things don’t normally affect many votes.

Regardless, the uncomfortable truth is that quite a few candidates are talking about the 2020 election this year, and those candidates are … Republicans. Last week, Pennsylvania Republicans nominated a gubernatorial candidate running on false claims of election fraud, while a Trump-endorsed candidate for governor in Georgia was badly defeated after he spent much of his campaign talking about 2020. This week, once again, some of the more active contests on the Republican side involved 2020-obsessed candidates. In South Dakota, incumbent Representative Dusty Johnson held off a candidate who ran on a supposed failure to investigate election fraud. In Mississippi’s third district, incumbent Michael Guest was forced into a runoff after voting in favor of a bipartisan commission to investigate Jan. 6, an effort that was defeated by Senate Republicans. And in California, incumbent Representative David Valadao was targeted after voting to impeach Trump. Certainly, a lot of Republican candidates — and at least one former president — think it’s essential to keep focused on the 2020 election.

2. Perhaps the biggest headline on the Democratic side Tuesday was the successful recall of San Francisco’s reform-minded district attorney, Chesa Boudin. The vote was so lopsided that news organizations called the result soon after the polls closed, and with half the vote counted the margin was 20 percentage points for the “Yes” side. Yet across the Bay, a reform candidate was leading in first-round voting for Alameda County district attorney. I’ll suggest two speculative explanations. One is that in such contests, where partisanship isn’t present or isn’t relevant (both counties are overwhelmingly Democratic), individual candidates and their campaigns are what matters — and what’s important about those candidates is not necessarily ideology. At the same time, what matters to voters is generally outcomes, not policies — which means that when people are upset about crime, they’re likely to want to throw the bums out and try something different, which will have radically different results depending on which bums happen to be in office in that jurisdiction.

Of course, when it comes to the general election, the bums who matter most will be President Joe Biden and the Democratic majorities in Congress. And if people remain upset about inflation and more, Biden will remain unpopular and Democrats are apt to get clobbered.

3. Over the course of the day, I noticed several political scientists complaining about how difficult it is to vote in California. Not the mechanics of physically voting; California makes that easy with a form of automatic voter registration and mail-in balloting. But the ballot itself is a mess. As one graduate student said: “the informational burden that our system places on voters is insane! We have far too many elected offices with overlapping and murky spheres of jurisdiction.” In part, this is a necessary trade-off for the ability in a federalist system to have politics at the local level. But politics can’t be meaningfully democratic if there are so many different local governments (cities, counties, school boards, special districts) that it takes considerable attention to even understand which is which. And that’s just the beginning of it.

My quickie three-prong reform plan: 1) No judicial elections. 2) Consolidate executive branches as much as possible. 3) No statewide ballot measures. Yes, that would give more influence to elected governors and legislatures (who would choose and confirm judges and statewide officials). But that works, more or less, at the federal level. And it would at least give voters a fighting chance to know what we’re doing.