One-party state.

Photographer: David McNew/Getty Images

California's Election Calamity

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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California voters are set to vote in their primary on Tuesday, and will suffer the consequences of a serious self-imposed mistake in how they run their state. No, it has nothing to do with the presidential race. The disaster is its “top two” system, in which the candidates for state offices -- regardless of party -- go on to compete in the general election in November if they finish first and second in the primaries.    

The likely perverse result? Voters in November will probably have a choice between two Democrats for an open U.S. Senate seat. 

The motivation for the California system was to elevate more moderate politicians than the parties were producing on their own. In practice, at least in the first two election cycles since the change was carried out, the results have not matched reformers’ hopes. Candidates have not been more moderate.

In part, that’s because the parties have adapted: They made more formal endorsements before the June first-round election. This is consistent with a theme that political scientist Seth Masket has emphasized in his research: Political parties are resilient, and react to regulation by finding new ways to control their nomination.

The current Senate race illustrates the problem. Current polling has Democrat Kamala Harris at 29 percent, Democrat Loretta Sanchez in second with 20 percent and Republican Tom Del Beccaro third at just 8 percent. In other words, if the polls hold up, two traditional Democrats will survive the first round and face off in November.

How did this happen? Of the 34 (!) candidates on the ballot, Harris, California's attorney general, and Sanchez, a U.S. representative for almost 20 years, are the best known. There is no clear separation among the 12 Republicans. In part, that’s because Republicans failed to recruit a strong candidate, but it’s also because it’s hard to emerge from a pack of 12. Had three strong Democrats chosen to run, they would have split the Democratic vote, and a Republican might have wound up advancing.

In this particular race, at least Californians will wind up electing a senator most of them support. But we’ve seen the opposite result too: In one Democratic-leaning U.S. House district in 2012 in Southern California, several Democratic candidates split the vote, and two Republican candidates wound up advancing to the final round -- leaving the majority of the district without a candidate to vote for.

There's more. Unlike Louisiana, which has a somewhat similar system but holds the initial vote on Election Day in November (with a runoff after that if needed), California holds its first round in June. This is months before most voters are focused on elections, meaning turnout is far lower for that election than for the final one. In 2014, 4.3 million people cast votes in June compared with 7.3 million in November.

Even worse is that, this year, the first-round election for the U.S. Senate and House, California Legislature and other offices takes place in the same June 7 election as the (partisan) presidential primary. This will likely favor Democrats because Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are still in a contest for their party's nomination, while Donald Trump has already sealed the deal on the Republican side. Turnout will likely be a lot higher on the Democratic side than among Republicans.

Granted, Democrats would almost certainly have won the U.S. Senate election under normal rules. But at least voters would have had a choice in November. And Republicans would have had an active effort to get their vote out, a drive that could matter a lot in some other races down the ballot. Since Trump and the Republicans are unlikely to make any effort in California for the general election, since it is solidly Democratic, and since the two Senate candidates are likely to be Democrats, Republicans will be at a significantly worse disadvantage in November than usual. 

It's an unfair and flat-out foolish system. 

(Corrects year of a previous U.S. House race in the seventh paragraph.)
  1. Third-party and independent campaigns also inevitably are defeated in the first-round election, so November voters aren’t even given an opportunity to support them. I’m not a big fan of third-party efforts, but I think they have a right to be considered by the full electorate.

  2. Donald Trump currently claims he's going to try to win California and New York in the general election. Good luck with that.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net