California Heading To Major, Bizarre Election Law Change

The state of California will likely undergo major changes to its election laws, according to the recent polls from Public Policy Institute of California (PDF). Proposition 14 is currently polling at 60 percent in support and 27 percent opposed, ahead of the June 8th vote.

The ballot initiative would significantly alter the way state office and Congressional elections are carried out, starting in 2012. Unfortunately, the state's voter guide gives it a deceptive name and summary: “Elections. Increases Right to Participate in Primary Election.”

What it would really do is produce a “Louisiana primary,” were any candidate can complete with any party label attached to his or her name, and all voters voting in the same primary. The top two total vote-getters, regardless of party, would be the only two candidates on the general election ballot in November.

This is not a primary in the way most Americans think of the term. Party members don't get to vote on who will represent their party in the general election with only one official nominee from each party. Prop. 14 would stop parties from using any means to select their own official nominee to put on the ballot.

This would effectively move the general election to June, with a runoff election many months later, in November. This system in theory could produce a November election between two Republicans, two Democrats, a Republican and a Green, two independents with no party affiliation, etc... Although similar systems have been used in Washington and Louisiana, independents and third parties almost never make it to the general election ballot in the rest of America.

Several Major Problems

There is a serious funding challenge when the general election and the runoff are so far apart. When runoff elections happen right away, via instant run off voting, or withing just a couple of weeks, they are part of the same campaign. This proposition will force candidates to run two district-wide campaigns, almost half a year apart. This could make running for office more expensive. Increasing that cost is not attractive, since we lack public financing of elections and now allow almost unlimited corporate spending. At the very least, the two elections should happen with in weeks of each other if not at the same moment with an instant runoff.

Without an official party nomination process, you can produce very strange results, thanks to vote splitting and strategic voting. Picture a very Republican-leaning district: It has 80,000 Republican voters and 60,000 Democratic voters. Let's say four people decide to run as Republicans and two as Democrats. Vote splitting could result in a general election, in this Republican district, between two Democrats.

CandidateVotesTop Two
Republican A25000
Republican B22000
Republican C20000
Republican D13000
Total Republican80000
Democrat A33000X
Democrat B27000X
Total Democrat60000

(Note: This would not be a problem with instant runoff voting election instead of a top-two runoff. Assuming all Republican voters made their second and third choices other Republicans, a Republican would win.)

The major and minor parties in California oppose Prop. 14. It eliminates the core function of a political party: to put forward a single nominee who best represents the party's views. Backers who have pumped big money into it include the California Chamber of Commerce (via California Business PAC), Health Underwriters, Hewlett Packard and Blue Shield of California. The fact that the Chamber of Commerce is supporting a ballot initiative that could make running for office even more expensive, and more in need of big money donors, is not reassuring.

Long term, Prop. 14 will probably have a much better impact on the future of California than anything else on the ballot June 8th. It is unfortunate that while the state considers changing its election laws, it is not adopting superior systems that could more accurately reflect the opinions of the voters. It is also unfortunate that the ballot does a very poor job of explaining what would result from adopting it.

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