Welcome to the jungle
The Center for Voting and Democracy has conducted a preliminary analysis of the effects of our new primary system. The results are not encouraging.
This June, Californians tried a new “top two” primary system, also known as the “jungle primary.” Voters choose from a list of candidates regardless of party and those placing in the top two go on to the general election.
This new system was supposed to encourage more moderate candidates to be elected by taking political parties out of the process. Candidates were supposedly going to have to appeal to voters across the political spectrum rather than just their party base.
The result: there is no perceptible increase in moderation. The Democrats now have more than two-thirds of the seats in both houses of the legislature, which means if they are united they can ignore the Republicans in budget discussions.
We were also supposed to see an increase in turnout, but that didn’t happen either. Turnout in the primary election was just 31 percent, lower than recent averages.
There were 153 seats elected with this process: 80 Assembly districts, 20 Senate districts and 53 congressional districts. Of these, 41 had just one Democrat and one Republican running at all in the primary with no minor party or unaffiliated candidate available. So much for choice.
Worse yet, in 22 districts, only one of the two major parties ran candidates. In eight of these cases, minor party or unaffiliated candidates were able to move on to the general election. This isn’t an increase in choice; it’s a side effect that results in a substantial number of people unrepresented.
In 34 districts, one of the two major parties ran multiple candidates, but the less popular of the two (in that district) ran only one. This is a planned strategy to ensure the party is represented in the general election. Their voters get less choice in their candidate, but at least see the party on the general ballot.
Several districts had a general election featuring two Democrats or two Republicans. This can hardly be argued as a system in which voters have more choice.
The most obvious example is congressional district 31. This district is about 41 percent Democrat, 35 percent Republican. You would think the Democrat would have a small advantage in the general election, butwith the jungle primary, four Democrats split the vote with two Republicans, resulting in the two Republicans moving on the general election.
The previous system was hardly perfect, but this is no solution. A better method would be larger districts and some form of proportional representation.
If we are truly disgusted with the political parties, it would be preferable to eliminate primaries altogether and use instant runoff voting in the general election. This would save money as well as improve the democratic process.
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To further the point about districting and why I write about it so much, recent blogs by Nate Silver, Steven Hill and Robert Richie further underscore the recent trend. According to Silver, in 1992 in nearly a quarter of congressional districts (103 in total), the presidential result was within five percentage points of the national vote. This year, there are only about 35 such districts.
The number of areas of the country where the vote is landslide Republican or Democratic is increasing. Despite what you may have been told, gerrymandering is not the primary cause. How you vote is increasingly determined by where one lives, rural or urban.
The median house district is now about five percentage points more Republican than the country as a whole. Democrats are largely concentrated in urban districts that are overwhelmingly Democratic. This is why despite getting more than half a million more votes in recent congressional elections, the Democrats did not take over the House of Representatives.
Hill and Richie’s article in The Atlantic shows how this affects policy. Those 35 swing congressional districts aren’t representative of the rest of the country. They just happen to be located in areas in which the NRA has a strong presence. A change of just a few percentage points can swing elections in those districts giving one group disproportionate influence.
As Hill and Richie state, the “NRA has money because it is powerful, not the other way around.” We aren’t likely to get meaningful gun control legislation any time soon, despite the fact that the majority of the country wants it, because an influential interest group in a small number of districts can swing elections so easily. This isn’t due to the influence of money, corruption, or gerrymandering, but the way our districts are set up.
Districting can be done better, but the groups with the best ideas, like the Center for Voting and Democracy, aren’t the ones with the money and power to lead the reform.
Michael Carley is a resident of Porterville. He can be reached at email@example.com.