As California hurtles toward its state primary June 5, it is obvious there’s a problem. Its open primary system — which sends the top two vote-getters to the general election, regardless of party affiliation — is not working as intended and risks throwing the midterm election into acrimony and confusion. This system is called a “jungle primary” for a reason: It is brutal and unpredictable. In three high-profile House races, there are so many candidates from the two major parties eating into one another’s support that the election results may end up owing more to chance than any discernible will of the people.
Polls show that Democrats have an excellent chance of capturing the Southern Californian seats being vacated by Ed Royce (R-Fullerton) and Darrell Issa (R-Isla Vista) and have a good shot at unseating Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach). These are all bona fide swing districts that surely deserve an up-and-down contest between a Republican and a Democrat in November.
But there is no guarantee this is what the voters will get. The biggest risk in all three districts is that the Democrats will fall victim to their own energy and enthusiasm and that, even if their candidates collectively win over 50% of the vote, they will be too split to secure either of the top two slots.
That’s a problem not just for Democrats hoping to bloody the nose of the Trump administration in the midterm, but for anyone who cares about a fair and transparent small-d democratic system.
The big flaw in the top-two primary is that while it purports to reward the best candidates regardless of party — the ones most likely to prevail in any two-way matchup in November — it can just as easily penalize them. It has been that way since the system was introduced in 2012. Of the 154 top-two primary races contested at the state and federal levels in that election cycle, 92 suffered from vote-splitting problems that raised the question of whether the most promising general election candidate made it through, according to data collected by the electoral reform group FairVote.org.
The most flagrant case that year was the 31st Congressional District, where two white Republicans prevailed in the primary even though the district around Redlands is majority Democrat and majority Latino. The seat reverted to the Democrats two years later. In 2014, the biggest anomaly was in Congressional District 25, a swing district around Lancaster, where, again, two Republicans advanced because Democrats split the primary vote. The eventual winner, Steve Knight, is now high on the Democrats’ target list.
Primary numbers were down significantly in 2012 and 2014, and turnout is not expected to crack 30% on June 5.
Such outcomes are not what California voters bargained for when they approved Proposition 14 and ditched the old single-party primary in 2010. What they were promised then, by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and others, was healthier, more open competition in which major parties would exert less control, and candidates with appeal across the spectrum would stand a better chance of getting elected.
Some of that has come to pass; the state Legislature is, by a number of measures, less gridlocked and more apt to compromise than it was eight years ago. But the imperfections in the open primary system have also been glaring.
The vote-splitting problem is merely the most visible of these. Because the major parties tend to inundate competitive races with candidates, independents and third parties — who represent a growing portion of the California electorate — find it even more difficult to compete than before. In other words, the major-party stranglehold on the system has in some ways tightened.
The reforms have not produced the expected boost in turnout, either. Primary numbers were down significantly in 2012 and 2014, and turnout is not expected to crack 30% on June 5. That means that a more consequential process is being decided by a smaller (and older, and more conservative) group of voters than before.
Many political insiders in Sacramento and third-party advocates would love to revert to the old system, which would have the virtue of simplicity. But it would also throw out much of the good of Proposition 14 along with the bad.
The way forward lies not in ditching the open primary, but in reforming it. FairVote, for example, has advocated a top-four primary, which would still weed out marginal candidates while greatly reducing the risk of unfair vote-splitting. General elections would then be decided by ranked choice voting, in which voters put the remaining candidates in order of preference, so election officials can eliminate them one by one in an instant runoff.
Similar ideas are gaining traction in many quarters. Bay Area cities have been experimenting with ranked choice voting in council and mayoral races, and Maine will use it for the first time in its June 12 primary. There are legitimate concerns that the complexities of such a system might confuse voters and depress turnout. It would certainly put a burden on election officials to develop user-friendly voting machines equal to the task.
Then again, this is California, which leads the country in innovation and imaginative thinking. There is no lack of political science data to tell us what is most likely to stimulate competition and turnout, and the technical issues are hardly insuperable in a world of massive multiplayer role-playing games and online poker. Our open primary system urgently needs a version 2.0 — and we should all pray we don’t have to endure an electoral meltdown on June 5 in order to get it.
Andrew Gumbel is a Los Angeles-based journalist. His books include “Down for the Count: Dirty Elections and the Rotten History of Democracy in America.”