When sample ballots started arriving this month, many California voters must have wondered where all the candidates went. Previously it was possible to vote for someone other than a Republican or Democrat; most voters will not have that option this year. Some won't even get to choose between a Republican and Democrat. They'll have to pick between two Democrats or two Republicans.
What happened to all the other candidates? Proposition 14 and the California Legislature happened. Neither was good for democracy.
One characteristic of democratic systems is that voters have freedom of choice; they get to cast their ballot for whomever they consider the best option. In American politics, that means if the Republican and Democratic candidates aren't good enough, people can vote independent, Libertarian, Green or write in someone else. Even if the candidate doesn't win, voters still get to make their preferences known.
Proposition 14 and the Legislature removed that possibility.
Proposition 14, passed in 2010, changed California elections from partisan primaries followed by a general election to a two-stage run-off election. Before, political parties and their voters nominated candidates in separate primaries. Every qualified party was guaranteed a line on the November ballot, and voters were able to choose from among those candidates. Now, all the candidates for congressional, state legislative and statewide offices, regardless of party, appear together on the first ballot, and only the top two candidates — again, regardless of party — compete in the general election.
To be sure, there were good motives for changing the electoral system. The hope was that doing so would reduce the level of partisan dysfunction in Sacramento. Unfortunately, political science research finds that open primaries do not necessarily lead to less-partisan legislatures. In fact, they can lead to just the opposite.
The change did discourage minor party candidates from running. More important, as a minor party representative told me, it discouraged the recruitment of candidates. Why try to persuade people to put their time, energy and money into what is almost certainly a brief, losing effort? When most people identify and vote either Republican or Democratic, the odds of a Libertarian or Green Party candidate getting one of the top two spots is incredibly small.
In the old system, the candidates were guaranteed to appear on the November ballot. Now, they are almost guaranteed not to appear on that ballot.
A minor party candidate's best chance to make the general election is to run against an unopposed incumbent, but the Legislature made a change that discouraged such a candidate from even considering that. It made running for office much more expensive for minor party candidates.
To appear on the ballot, all candidates have to either pay a fee ranging from about $1,000 to $2,000, depending on the office being sought, or gather signatures from registered voters in lieu of the fee. In February, the Legislature increased the number of signatures needed for minor party candidates from a maximum of 150 to between 1,500 and 10,000, depending on the office.
Unlike the major parties, minor parties and their candidates do not have the resources to gather the requisite signatures. There are also far fewer people who identify with the minor parties in each district. The change, then, was a de facto increase in the filing fee for minor party candidates.
Political science research shows that even minor increases in filing fee costs and signature requirements can decrease the number of candidates seeking office. Moreover, the effect is larger for minor parties than for the major ones. Representatives from California's minor parties told me that the new signature requirement had a chilling effect on their ability to recruit people to run for office. People who ran in 2010 chose not to in 2012.
Is it any wonder, then, that 2012 saw the fewest minor party candidates in California in almost 50 years?
Elections in a democracy are supposed to be about choice. Proposition 14 and the Legislature reduced voters' choice and made California elections less democratic.
Keith Smith is an assistant professor of political science at the University of the Pacific in Stockton.