Debating California’s new top-two vote-getter system

Capitol Journal

SACRAMENTO — This is nonsense, I’m thinking: A legislative candidate wins a majority of votes in the June primary but still must run in November against the same guy he already beat.

That seems a waste of tax dollars for an unnecessary election redux.

You’d think if a candidate collected a majority of the vote — not a plurality, but a clear majority — that would be it. Game over.


That’s how it works in mayoral and other local elections — also for state superintendent of public instruction and special elections to fill legislative and congressional vacancies.

Only if one candidate fails to exceed 50% is a runoff needed.

But that’s not how it works under California’s new top-two open primary system for state and congressional races. The top two finishers advance to a runoff in November, regardless of party — and regardless of how big a whopping one candidate gave another.

So maybe the top-two system needs a major tweak: Win a majority vote in the primary and you win. Period.

Save public money. Hold down those corrupting political donations by special interests.

At last count, according to the Public Policy Institute of California, there were majority-vote winners in half the Assembly primaries, 40 out of 80. In Senate contests, 16 of 20 primaries ended with a candidate receiving a majority. In U.S. House races, 35 of 53 candidates surpassed 50%.

Rep. Janice Hahn of San Pedro tromped fellow Democratic Rep. Laura Richardson of Long Beach by a landslide, 60% to 40%, but still must run against her a second time in the fall.

In Bakersfield, House Republican Whip Kevin McCarthy buried his closest opponent, an independent, by 56 percentage points. But they’ll face each other again in November.

“That’s crazy,” says veteran Democratic consultant Gale Kaufman.

“If you get over 50%, seems to me that race should be over. You’re done. Why do people get a do-over? That doesn’t make sense.”

Allowing candidates to win it all in June, she says, would make the primary more significant and save money.

Yes, that’s what I’ve been thinking.

Then I called around and started rethinking.

For starters, except during special elections to fill vacancies, congressional candidates can’t be crowned in primaries.

Louisiana tried it and got knocked down by the U.S. Supreme Court. The Constitution gives Congress the ultimate power over federal elections. And Congress has decreed that every state must hold its election on the same day in November.

OK, but what about state legislative elections? California could cut out the unnecessary duplication there.

“A horrible idea,” says former legislator Steve Peace, chairman of the California Independent Voter Project, which drafted the top-two ballot measure that voters approved in 2010.

“We thought about it very deliberatively and actively rejected it.”

Peace’s biggest objection — echoing others — was that the voter turnout in a primary is significantly smaller than in a November election. So a relative handful of voters would be electing a representative for all the people.

The turnout in California’s June 5 snoozer, at last count, was only 30% of registered voters.

“Democracy works best when decisions are made by the most people,” Peace says.

Of course, if a primary were more meaningful and decisive, there might be a bigger turnout. But still not nearly as big as in November.

Peace says he’s also planning two other reform proposals: to move the state primary to September and ban all political fundraising during non-election years.

A September primary would shorten the campaign season and expand the politicians’ season for governing, the former lawmaker says. The off-year fundraising ban would do the same.

“It reinforces the idea that politicians wear two hats,” Peace says. “When the election’s over, they need to take off their election hats and put on their governing hats. Our focus is to reintroduce that old-fashioned concept.”

Maybe. But I shudder at the thought of a summer-long primary campaign for governor. And there’d certainly need to be a separate early presidential primary if California voters wanted any voice in who got nominated.

Back to the top-two’s November runoffs.

Republican consultant Richard Temple likes the idea because, he says, it will force candidates to appeal to general election voters who tend to be less ideological and more centrist than the primary variety.

The public is better served when a candidate draws broad support, Temple says, because “elected officials represent [only] who voted for them.”

Anyway, voters would never give up their right to elect officeholders in November, contends Allan Hoffenblum, who publishes the California Target Book, which handicaps congressional and legislative races.

Hoffenblum is excited about the top-two primary and the subsequent runoffs among same-party candidates. There’ll be more than two dozen in November.

“I’m a Republican on the Westside” in Los Angeles, he says. “For the first time ever, my vote is going to count.”

Eric McGhee, who analyzes political reform for the Public Policy Institute of California, says it may be a few years before the top-two primary can be accurately graded.

“We’ve probably seen a few more moderates advance so far,” he says. “We’ll have to wait and see how the people who are elected govern.”

He’s leery of swearing in someone based on a majority vote in the primary. “If I were to recommend something like that, I’d put the threshold higher — like at 60%.”

Forget it. What California really doesn’t need is another super-majority vote requirement.

But I’m still thinking that a repeat race for a runaway primary victor is screwy.