Polls indicate that the 2018 midterms are shaping up very well for the Democratic Party. But Tuesday’s primary in California is a potent reminder of how misguided reforms to the electoral system can frustrate the will of the voters.
The problem is not that these reforms hurt the Democratic Party per se, but that they’re a “fix” that don’t solve the original problem. And issues created by California’s reforms are compounded by a flaw in the American electoral system that isn’t unique to the state: an electoral system that effectively throws out important information about what voters want. This is true regardless of the final results in California.
The problems in California are a result of the state’s “top-two” or “jungle primary” system. In every state other than California, Washington and Louisiana, parties pick their candidates for the general election in primary elections. But in a top-two system, there is a single, nonpartisan primary, and the top two candidates advance irrespective of partisan affiliation. In most races, this change is pointless – producing the same Democratic and Republican candidates that would be produced by a partisan primary. (For example, the 2016 Washington top-two Senate primary led to a general election contest between Democratic candidate Patty Murray and Republican candidate Chris Vance.)
But in other situations, the system can produce undemocratic results. This year’s primary in California’s 48th congressional district (CA-48) is a case in point. The Orange County district currently represented by Republican Dana Rohrabacher has historically had a strong Republican lean that in an ordinary year would have made it difficult to recruit even a single viable Democratic candidate. But with a potential Democratic wave in November, changing demographics making the district competitive enough that Hillary Clinton carried it in 2016, and with Rohrabacher being particularly vulnerable because of his persistent advocacy for closer ties to Russia, the Democrats have the opposite problem: too many viable candidates.
In addition to numerous minor candidates who took critical votes on Tuesday, the party has been divided between two Democratic frontrunners: businessman Harley Rouda and scientist Hans Keirstead. Keirstead has a more liberal record (Rouda was a registered Republican until recently), but Kierstead has faced accusations, which he denies, that he punched a woman outside a night club. (The allegations were included in a complaint to his former employer, which investigated the charges and cleared Kierstead of any wrongdoing.) As of publication time on Wednesday, the preliminary vote count indicated that Rohrabacher had advanced to the general election, with Rouda in second place thanks to a slim lead over Keirstead.
In the vast majority of states, the selection of too many candidates from the same party wouldn’t be a problem. The party would choose its candidate in a primary, and then general election voters would choose between that candidate and those of other parties. But in the top-two system, if enough Democrats split the vote it’s very possible that no Democrat will appear on the ballot even if the Democratic candidate would win the general election. This is a travesty for democracy.
And it is not the only perverse outcome created by the top-two system. One of the goals of eliminating partisan primaries is to reduce the role of parties in selecting candidates. But because the failure to rally around a candidate before the fact can lead to the party being excluded from a winnable general election, if anything the top-two primary encourages more meddling from party elites. This actually leads to the worst of both worlds.
On one hand, many party activists resent – not without reason – official party organs intervening in competitive primary campaigns. Party elites aren’t necessarily that good at predicting who is electable and they appear to be meddling. There is no single entity representing the Democratic Party that can ensure coordination around candidates in a jungle primary. In the case of CA-48, the national Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) supports Rouda, but the state party supports Keirstead. And if party elites were on the same page, their power would still be limited – it’s not at all uncommon for primary candidates backed by the DCCC to lose. In a typical primary system, these conflicts can be resolved by the voters. But the top-two encourages more heavy-handed intervention from the party, which results in hostility towards the party and no guarantee of the desired election outcome.
It’s not just the top-two primary that’s the problem. An even bigger issue in U.S. politics, relevant in more states, is plurality voting – the system that records a single vote per voter and awards the top candidate(s) as winner(s) even if they fall short of a majority. Ranked-choice or other systems that allow voters to rank preferences for multiple candidates would greatly reduce perverse outcomes. A Rouda or Keirstead voter could name the other major Democratic candidate their second choice and avoid the risk of producing their least-preferred outcome – a general election with no Democratic nominees.
Improving the electoral system wouldn’t just help California. The conservative columnist David Brooks recently made the case for multimember districts and ranked-choice voting. This would not merely allow voters to vote for their favorite candidate without risking their least-favored outcome, it would also address another major democratic infirmity by making it much harder to gerrymander House districts. The potentially perverse results in California should provide an impetus to consider reforms that would produce more democratic results beyond the Golden State.
(Editor’s note: This column has been updated to include preliminary results from the California primary and to correct an error in a previous version that stated only California and Washington have “top -two” or “jungle primary” systems.)