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140609 Another Strange California Election

Another Strange California Election

6/9/14

 

Huffing and puffing, California candidates have entered another election’s aftermath full of bloated ballots and strange rules. The June 3 vote marks the beginning of California’s second statewide election since its 2010 approval of Proposition 14, which revolutionized the state’s electoral system. I opposed Proposition 14 and predicted various miserable consequences at the time. Did they materialize? Let’s see.

 

Perhaps to be nostalgic, some called last week’s election a “primary.” It’s not. Proposition 14 eliminated primaries and made California one of three states (joining Louisiana and Washington) to hold only a two-phase general election. All candidates—regardless of party registration—appear on one ballot, and whichever two receive the most votes—again, regardless of party registration—advance to the next round in November. This sounds simple, but my quick tabulation shows that simple solutions can cause complex messes.

 

Weird, Redundant Votes

We’ll start with my comment that the top two advance. These rules take that notion quite woodenly: under any possible circumstance, the top two advance. What if one candidate earns a majority? Surely if more than half of voters supports a candidate, that person should win, right? Isn’t majority rule what American is all about? Apparently California no longer thinks so. The top two still advance: the majority candidate and the runner up. Often this leads to silly results, as in State Assembly District 22.

 

State Assembly District 22

Advance

Candidate

Party

Vote

Percent

x

Kevin Mullin (Incumbent)

D

37,874

71%

x

Mark Gilham

R

8,160

15%

 

Jonathan E. Madison

R

7,400

14%

 

Gee, anyone unsure how this will go in November? Voters do not need another election just so that the third guy’s 14% can redistribute their votes. Of course between now and then, the electorate will change as new voters join in while others drop off. Still, a clear majority has spoken. It’s over.

 

This situation, unfortunately, is quite common. Of the 111 state-level elections last week using Proposition 14’s rules, one candidate secured a majority in a whopping 77 of them. The people’s voice rang clear, and California should have declared those 77 the winners. Instead Proposition 14 prohibited a majority of voters in a fully open election from selecting their public officials. That outcome scorns majoritarianism, fills ballots with redundant elections, and places California almost alone among states’ election laws both currently and historically. (As a note, 41 of the 53 federal-level California elections also produced a majority candidate, but U.S. law prohibits the state from establishing victors in those races before November.)

 

Even more strangely, of the 77 state-level contests producing a majority candidate, 36 had only two people on the ballot anyway. This sounds surreal, but yes: Californians go to the polls, look at a ballot with two names, vote, return in November, see another ballot with the exact same two names, and vote again. Why? The first time, those two needed to finish in the top two (of two) before advancing. This is, of course, pure silliness. The only possible value of round one is if a write-in candidate surpassed one of the others, but that scenario is quite rare.

 

Worse still, these rules are not just bizarre but harmful. We increasingly live in an electoral environment choked with money, yet California insists on campaigns for meaningless elections. In races with only two candidates, you might hope that both would just stay quiet the first round, but politics doesn’t work like that. The two candidates face great pressure to win the most votes. First place has zero legal significance, but the media and donors expect success. The initial round thus becomes a giant, government-sponsored straw poll, and the two candidates must compete. This is an affront to voters (who already must worry about other votes that do count) and places donors in an even more questionable role. At a minimum, California must cancel the first round of two-candidate races. Anything else is a sad joke.

 

Unfair Outcomes?

Last week’s results do offer a bit of good news. Originally I feared that Proposition 14 would place unfair candidate pairings onto the November slots, but so far this is occurring rarely. Based on current results, of the 143 state and federal races in which at least two candidates ran, the following combinations of people advanced:

 

Proposition 14 Races with 2 or More Candidates

Candidate Combination

# of Races

1 Democrat, 1 Republican

116

2 Democrats

18

2 Republicans

6

1 Democrat, 1 with no party preference

3

 

These outcomes make sense. The Democratic and Republican Parties are predominant, so most races should result in one person from each advancing. Still we should worry about the instances of one party securing both slots. What happens to voters outside that party? They get stuck in November choosing between potentially quite similar (and unpalatable) options. Here, though, is the good news: based on current results in all 24 of those monopoly races (the 18 Democratic and 6 Republican), the prevailing party’s candidates cumulatively earned at least 60% of the vote each time. This means that when a party monopolizes the second round, it tends to do so because it genuinely is dominant.

 

Two potential exceptions, however, are worth noting. Let’s start with the state controller’s race.

 

State Controller

Advance

Candidate

Party

Vote

Percent

x

Ashley Swearengin

R

846,628

25%

?

John A. Perez

D

732,688

22%

?

Betty T. Yee

D

730,928

21%

?

David Evans

R

729,091

21%

 

Laura Wells

G

190,543

6%

 

Tammy D. Blair

D

171,625

5%

 

Slots

Party Cumulative Total

 

Vote

Percent

0 or 1

Democrats

 

1,635,241

48%

1 or 2

Republicans

 

1,575,719

46%

0

Greens

 

190,543

6%

 

Because California is notoriously slow with vote tabulation (a topic about which one can gripe another time), perhaps 15% to 20% of its total vote remains uncounted now six days after the election. Three candidates are locked in a close contest for the number two slot, and as the days go by, they bounce around between second and fourth place. We cannot predict a winner but can certainly see a big problem: a small shift could give Republicans both slots even as they cumulatively garner just 46% of the total vote. That’s hardly a fair result. A similar problem may be brewing in U.S. House District 31. There, despite Democrats pulling together a 53% majority, they sit just a few votes from receiving neither slot.

 

U.S. House District 31

Advance

Candidate

Party

Vote

Percent

x

Paul Chabot

R

13,868

27%

?

Pete Aguilar

D

9,023

17%

?

Lesli Gooch

R

8,842

17%

 

Eloise Gomez Reyes

D

8,250

16%

 

Joe Baca

D

5,797

11%

 

Danny Tillman

D

4,492

9%

 

Ryan Downing

R

1,700

3%

 

Slots

Party Cumulative Total

 

Vote

Percent

0 or 1

Democrats

 

27,562

53%

1 or 2

Republicans

 

24,410

47%

 

Of course Proposition 14’s purpose was to diminish parties’ influence and let voters treat candidates like individuals. The problem, though, is that November is not just about individuals. The final ballot needs to carry a representative sample of candidates. That’s why 47 states nominate candidates through parties. California chose otherwise, but voters (and parties) may sour on Proposition 14 if brazenly unfair pairings pop up in November elections. However, thus far California is largely skirting that problem.

 

All in all California’s experiment with Proposition 14 continues. Some problems (like the double round of two-candidate elections) are painful and obvious. Others (including the possibility of a freakish party monopoly over both slots) loom but have occurred rarely. We’ll see what happens next time.