Though county registrars are still tallying the votes in several close contests, the memory of California’s June primary has already begun to fade from the state’s collective consciousness — assuming, that is, that it ever made an imprint there at all. Before it vanishes altogether, though, Californians should take away one lesson from June’s balloting: The state’s new method for conducting primary elections is an asinine idea that can lead to perverse and anti-majoritarian consequences.
Under the so-called jungle primary system, which came into being through a 2010 ballot measure that voters narrowly ratified, primary voters can cast their ballot for any candidate in the June election, and the top two finishers, regardless of party, advance to the November runoff. Both the 2012 and the 2014 primaries were conducted under these rules, so we can now look at the effects this new process has had on California politics.
The first and most obvious effect the jungle system has had is to convey a clear advantage to the party that runs fewer candidates for an office. In 2012, four Democrats and two Republicans ran in the June primary to represent the newly redrawn 31st District in Congress. Situated in the western part of the Inland Empire, the district had a clear plurality of Democrats — but because the Republican candidates divided their votes two ways while the Democrats split their votes among four candidates, the two candidates who made it into November’s general election were the Republicans.
The eventual victor, Gary Miller, chose not to seek reelection this year, in part because his politics were so out of sync with the sentiments of district voters.
This month, the California primary contest for a statewide office almost ended equally bizarrely. Three Democrats and two Republicans ran for the office of state controller, and when the election-night vote counting was done, the Republicans finished one-two in the count. Subsequent counting of absentee and provisional ballots has elevated two of the three Democrats above the second Republican; the vote totals for second place remain very close and still aren’t resolved.
But if a few thousand votes had shifted, voters in one of the country’s most liberal states could have faced a runoff this November between two Republicans, even though the three Democrats on the primary ballot amassed more votes than the two GOP contestants, and even though just 28% of California voters are Republicans while 43% are Democrats.
Precisely because California is so heavily Democratic, it’s often the case that more Democrats than Republicans will run for open seats. For that very reason, though, the process tends to give the advantage to Republicans, though the party’s relentlessly falling registration figures make clear that most Californians wish to steer clear of the party and its standard-bearers.
When the jungle primary was placed before state voters in 2010, its advocates argued that it would increase voter participation by opening up previously closed primary elections to nonpartisan voters. Though volumes of election statistics show that nonpartisan voters tend to be less engaged in politics than party members, the jungle system’s champions insisted that given the chance to vote in primary elections, the nonpartisans would flock to the polls and overall participation would rise.
It hasn’t worked out that way. When the vote count in this June’s primary is completed, turnout will probably be about 25%, which would make it the lowest ever. A multitude of factors have contributed to the ongoing decline in voter participation, but it’s clear that the jungle primary has done nothing substantial, if, indeed, anything at all, to arrest it.
The jungle system was also supposed to reduce political polarization, according to the business interests and others who championed it. The idea was to diminish the influence of tea party Republicans within the GOP and of pro-labor liberals in Democratic ranks.
To date, few if any tea party Republicans have been dislodged. A number of self-professed moderate Democrats do hold seats in the Legislature, but that’s been the case since roughly 2002, when the state’s leading energy and banking interests realized the days of Republican rule were over and began to back candidates in Democratic primaries. Recently, some of these moderates abstained on a bill that would raise the state’s minimum wage — a dubious achievement for legislators who disproportionately represent the state’s poorest districts.
That’s the book on the jungle primary. It’s time for state voters to scrap it.
Harold Meyerson is editor at large of the American Prospect and an op-ed columnist for the Washington Post.