Third Party Death

Open primaries, closed elections?

In June, California voters passed Proposition 14, a measure that will dramatically reduce the chances that third parties will be represented on future ballots. Under the new system, California will have nonpartisan primary elections, although candidates can opt to list a party identification. The top two vote-getters, of whatever party, will be the only choices listed on the November general election ballot. Write-ins won’t be counted.

Major and minor political parties alike opposed Prop. 14, but the proposal’s supporters outspent them, by around $4.8 million to less than $300,000. The pro-14 money came largely from the health care industry, tech companies, and the state Chamber of Commerce. Christina Tobin, who ran the anti-14 campaign “Stop Top Two,” believes that moneyed interests want to create a narrow political world in which “moderate Republicans and moderate Democrats become one brand” easily amenable to corporate influence.

It is highly unlikely that any minor-party candidate will have the juice or money to win a top-two slot in post-Prop. 14 California. Since Washington state switched to this system in 2008, no third-party or independent candidate has made the general election ballot. Richard Winger, a longtime ballot access activist, points out that in Washington and Louisiana, another state with a “top two” primary system, one effect has been to make incumbent victories even more common.

Washington’s primary system survived a legal challenge from three political parties, losing at two lower court levels but winning at the U.S. Supreme Court in 2008. In California, a number of Prop. 14’s opponents have threatened lawsuits challenging the measure, but none had been filed as of press time. 

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