Downsizing Democracy in California

Downsizing Democracy in California

California voters will decide next Tuesday whether to narrow their choices at election time.


California voters will decide next Tuesday whether they want real choices in their elections or the limited options afforded them by the two major parties.

Proposition 14, placed on the ballot as part of a political deal involving Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and legislative insiders, would abolish the current system of nominating candidates in party primary elections and then having them run on a fall ballot that features Democratic and Republican contenders as well as Greens, Libertarians, candidates of smaller parties and independents.

The new system would have all candidates of all parties, along with independents, run in the same primary. Then the two top finishers would contend against one another in November. In decidedly Democratic districts, that could mean a "choice" between two Democrats. In Republican-leaning districts, the "choice" could be between two Republicans. In statewide races, more often than not, a Democrat would still face a Republican, but there would be no alternative.

Foes of the initiative, who have organized a "Stop Top Two" campaign,  note that, "The top two vote getters, even if both of them get less than 10% and they are from the same party, would advance to the November election."

Worse yet, "Proposition 14 forbids voters from write-in candidates for the November election, so if Top Two passes California voters will no longer have more than two choices in the November election; except for the Presidential race."

That’s a constrained democracy that offers voters less rather than more.

This prospect has raised the hackles of reformers on the left and the right, from liberal stalwarts like state Representative Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, to conservatives like state Senator Chuck DeVore, a Republican U.S. Senate candidate who has earned the backing the of Tea Party activists. The Greens are opposed, and so are the Libertarians.

The San Francisco Bay Guardian newspaper, which can always be counted on to offer a smart, anti-establishment take, is ardently opposed.

The newspaper explains that:

At the height of a royal mess last year when the state budget was long overdue and the two-thirds majority needed to pass it was still out of reach by one vote, Republican Sen. Abel Maldonado struck a deal with Democrats. He said he’d support the budget — if the majority party would meet a few of his demands. One thing he insisted on was Prop. 14 — a ballot measure that would effectively remove political parties from the primary elections process, allowing all voters to cast ballots for any candidate regardless of party affiliation.

Under Maldonado’s plan, all candidates would run on a single primary ballot, and the top two vote-getters would face off in the general election. Heavily funded by the California Chamber of Commerce and marketed by the same spin doctors and corporate lawyers who are rolling in Yes on 16 campaign money, Prop. 14’s backers say it will result in more centrist elected officials.

There are plenty of pitfalls here, the most worrisome being that it would drive up the cost of elections and give more moneyed (and corporate-allied) candidates a sharper competitive edge while elbowing out progressives. It would allow Republicans to play a role in what would normally be Democratic primaries (and vice versa.) The measure would also make it nearly impossible for smaller parties — the Green Party, for example — to offer candidates in the November elections.

Bad idea, bad process. Vote no.

Needless to say, Proposition 14 is opposed by advocates for real electoral reform.

Indeed, the best arguments for rejecting Proposition 14 comes from FairVote, the national reform organization which has taken the lead in proposing alternative voting systems that better reflect the will of the people.

FairVote director Rob Richie says his group recognizes that: "Many Californians are frustrated with their state’s politics. Incumbents almost never lose, most general elections are lopsided, and most elections are effectively decided in low-turnout primaries. The status quo is hard to defend, but we still support it over Proposition 14 and the proposal to establish a "Top Two" system in California."

Why? Because FairVote argues that citizens need "more choices on the ballot, election rules that broaden political discourse, a level playing field for all candidates and the groups that support them, and proportional representation based on how people vote."

While a "Top-Two" voting system, along the lines of what is hinted at in Proposition 14, could be designed in a way that expands democratic options.

But, FairVote’s analysis suggests,  "Proposition 14’s flaws are too severe."

What are the flaws? According to FairVote:

The Two Rounds of Voting are Too Far Apart: Runoff elections are a way of conducting majority-voting elections, which we support when electing one person to an office. Instant runoff voting is a more efficient, voter-friendly means to elect a majority winner, but two-round runoff elections also are likely to achieve that goal. In France, for example, runoffs take place just two week after the first round, meaning that both rounds are part of a general election season where all candidates’ voices can be heard.

Under Prop.14, however California would eliminate nearly all candidates in a preliminary election held in early June –thereby leaving only two candidates on the ballot for five months until the November election. In fact, Prop. 14 does not even allow write-in candidates in the November runoff. In June, major parties may fail to secure a runoff spot due to split votes, while small parties will almost never advance. Five months with only two choices severely narrows the dialogue necessary to engage voters in a positive way and widen public understanding of policy alternatives.

Political Association Rights Are Neither Encouraged Nor Protected: We recognize Prop. 14’s intention of moving away from the antiquated process of partisan primaries that today are subject to plunging voter turnout and unrepresentative electorates, yet limit everyone else’s choices in November. But its solution is draconian for small parties and problematic for all parties. First, candidates only will be able to run with a party label only after a large number of voters register with that party — meaning that many candidates will not have the option to list their true party of choice. At the same time, a candidate can register with an established party and run with its label even if that party wants nothing to do with that candidate.

We want to improve electoral politics and increase participation through innovative means of promoting more association, not less. Allowing candidates to indicate party preferences on the ballot without the party having any say will lead to voter confusion and dilution of parties’ rights of political association. In the Washington State Grange case that opened the door to the Top Two system, the Supreme Court ignored the modern world’s convergence of political association and inclusive technology — a convergence with the potential to engage and inform voters and offer them new, expanded voter choice.

In Closing: Political structures in California, if not the nation, are in need of reform. The Public Policy Institute of California concluded that Prop. 14’s "overall effect on California’s political landscape would probably be modest." We agree. California, a usual innovator, needs to take a look at its 1859 era legislature from a 21st Century perspective and consider bolder proposals. FairVote could support a "top-two vote getter" system, but within criteria we stated above. We therefore oppose California’s Proposition 14.

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