Election 2018

California's Top-Two Voting System Keeps Leaving Voters Without Options

Given only two candidates from the same party, millions just don't choose at all.

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'Don't know' vote
Golib Tolibov / Dreamstime.com

California saw a huge voter turnout in November, with nearly 13 million ballots cast. About 65 percent of the registered voters participated, the biggest numbers for the state in a midterm election in a decade.

That sounds like a big win for democratically elected representation, but there's more than one way to disenfranchise a voter. California's top-two voting system for state officials and for state and federal legislators creates a system where many voters only get to vote between candidates from the same political party for some seats.

In California's top-two system, voters get to choose from a slate of all candidates from all parties in the primaries. The two candidates with the most votes, regardless of which party they belong to, face off in the fall election. Those who sold this election system to voters (it was approved via ballot initiative in 2010) insisted that it would make races more competitive because candidates would be pushed to try to appeal to a wider base of voters.

But it isn't actually making for more voter engagement. Instead, millions of voters are simply not casting votes in many major races, and by looking at the numbers, it's very clear that the lack of actual choice is playing a role.

The Los Angeles Times sorted through the latest numbers. Only two percent of those who voted in California declined to choose one of the gubernatorial candidates. Voters had both a Democrat and a Republican to choose from in that race. For lieutenant governor, Californians had a choice between two Democrats and that's it. In that race, more than two million voters, or 18 percent, declined to pick a candidate. In previous elections where there was interparty competition, 95 percent of voters cast a ballot for lieutenant governor.

The Times noted similar drop-offs in every race in the state where voters only had the choice between two Democrats and only in those races. Even California's Senate race saw 13 percent of voters deciding not to bother to choose between incumbent Democrat Sen. Dianne Feinstein and also-Democratic challenger Kevin de Leon.

We saw similar drop-offs in the 2016 presidential election, where Democrat Kamala Harris defeated also-Democrat Loretta Sanchez. Nearly two million voters who cast ballots didn't bother with either of them.

It's fascinating how much less interested people are in exploring this phenomenon than if, say, 10 to 20 percent of voters had their ballots tossed out or their votes somehow discounted. There's plenty of attention on mechanisms used by political parties to keep people from voting at all in order to influence the election results. But there is much less attention given to the fact that states like California game the system in such a way that many voters don't get choices to begin with.

Somewhat mystifyingly, the Times describes this top-two system as having the support of California voters based on a single poll that only gives people the choice between this system, the old closed system (you had to be a member of the party to vote in its primary), and a mixed system where independents could decide which party's primary to participate in. Given just those three options, 50 percent preferred the current top-two primary system.

Bafflingly, Times Sacramento Bureau Chief John Myers presents these numbers as indication that California voters are "happy" with this system.

But 50 percent support for an election system actually represents terrible numbers. It is nothing to brag about and certainly not justification for maintaining a system. It means half of all Californians don't like this current system. Compare that to the new ranked-choice voting system implemented this year in Maine, which introduced that system to some of its primary races and in polling after its first use, 90 percent said the experience was "excellent" or "good."

Maine's system also has the advantage of allowing people to support independent and third-party candidates come the fall. In California, they aren't even on the ballot in November unless they leap the very high hurdle of surpassing both Democrat and Republican candidates in the primary.

That the poll only asked Californians to compare the current primary system to previous primary systems within the state and not other potential options indicates a lack of a grasp on the full problem. Of course half the voters would like it. It's probably the half that gets to choose between two candidates they largely agree with and completely locks out candidates they don't like. Why should those voters care about who gets disenfranchised from voting in particular races?

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  1. Uh, yeah, as designed.

    1. Exactly

  2. Given only two candidates from the same party, millions just don’t choose at all.

    Feature.

  3. California’s top-two voting system for state officials and for state and federal legislators creates a system where many voters only get to vote between candidates from the same political party for some seats.

    Just like the Soviet Union! The citadel of Socialism! This is progress, comrades!

  4. The Times noted similar drop-offs in every race in the state where voters only had the choice between two Democrats and only in those races.

    But what about the races where the two top vote-getters were both Republicans?

    1. Silly boy, Democrats only impose this system in places where they’ve already rendered it nearly impossible for someone from another party to get elected. A place that has Republicans that can even get close isn’t ready yet–and one where the top two could be the candidates, honey, this isn’t Alabama.

  5. As libertarians, we should want the California model to spread to all 50 states. Just imagine how much more libertarian this country would be if every state was guaranteed to send two Democrats to the US Senate. Sure, there would be occasional Republicans in the House of Representatives. But a 100% Democrat Senate would never permit dangerous right-wing extremists like Gorsuch and Kavanaugh to reach the Supreme Court. This would severely limit the GOP’s ability to literally transform this country into The Handmaid’s Tale.

    #SaveRoe
    #LibertariansForFeinstein

    1. You are delusional.

      1. No, he just thinks he’s being funny. It’s an attempt at a parody account. Unfortunately, the satire is not done well enough and it just come across as a lame but maybe serious post by new readers (or old ones who don’t notice the name).

        1. It’s hard to do the sarcasm thing well. Many keep trying, poorly. Many of the poor attempts come off as trolling, judging by the responses they get. There should be a good test bed somewhere to try this out & refine one’s art, then come back if & when one gets good at it.

          1. I gotta admit, OpenBorders is pretty good, but not so good that it doesn’t wear out.

            1. He’s no Titania McGrath.

    1. Ugh. Such a problematic headline. “The Chicago Way”? I learned in college any negative reference to “Chicago” (or “Detroit”) is a racial dog whistle that basically means “black people.”

      It’s disappointing to read such racist language in the Chicago Tribune of all places.


      1. I learned in college any negative reference to “Chicago” (or “Detroit”) is a racial dog whistle that basically means “black people.”

        It’s disappointing to read such racist language in the Chicago Tribune of all places.

        God damn, you nearly made me spit take at the office!

        Possibly genius.


        1. Dorf said that he will ask the elections board next week to refer the matter to Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx.

          But Foxx, a Democrat, won’t want to anger the Boss.

          Neither will incoming Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul, who famously said he would not “go fishing” for corruption, and who also received a million dollars in Madigan political money.

          And current Illinois Attorney General, Lisa Madigan, is the Boss’ daughter.

          And, lest we not forget, this is literally where Obama came from politically.

    2. That is atrocious.

      And it will probably stand.

      1. Of course it will stand. The guy owns the attorney general, the department of elections, a large group of “loyal but quiet” aldermen, he controls the congressional districts– everything.

        1. It would definitely be a shame if this “Boss” Madigan got shot in the head and dumped in a ditch somewhere. Tragedy, really.

  6. They should just change it to a top 1 primary system and skip the main election.

  7. We saw similar drop-offs in the 2016 presidential election, where Democrat Kamala Harris defeated also-Democrat Loretta Sanchez. Nearly two million voters who cast ballots didn’t bother with either of them.

    And you thought Trump vs. Hillary were the worst possible Presidential candidates possible!

  8. Voters should never have options.
    Did Hitler give the voters options?
    Did Stalin give the voters options?
    Did Castro give the voters options?
    Did Mao give the voters options?
    Of course not, and their societies became a paradigm of freedom, peace and prosperity that all socialists envy.

  9. California, you say? Democrats, you say? Gaming elections, you say?

  10. Top two, IRV. NPV, open primaries, non-partisan elections and on and on. Obfuscate the candidates, use esoteric counting methods. Anything to take the choice out of the vote.

    Until you’re still ‘voting’, but the leaders are only theoretically in danger of being ousted. All the counting and tabulating is done by trusted ‘non-partisan’ election officials to make sure that the election is always correct honest fair very well attended.

    This is what the Democrats, the progressives, the left is angling for.

  11. Knowing that any Republican has absolutely no chance, one would just as soon look the two Democrats over for any kind of preference.

    Just because people don’t vote when they have no preference doesn’t mean that the system is unfair.

    Over time, the CA democratic party is doomed to split, because of this mechanism. We will have choices, both Democrats, but they won’t always be the same.

    I voted against Feinstein due to the Kavanaugh smear, but I declined to choose between Harris and Sanchez, because there didn’t seem any difference.

    1. Over time, the CA democratic party is doomed to split, because of this mechanism.

      Sounds good to me. We should encourage voting systems that encourage parties to fracture in order to break up our monolithic two-party system.

      1. Very true. When Juan Peron returned to Argentina they basically had a one party state. That party already split into a right wing and left wing. The right had snipers to shoot the left at the Ezeiza airport massacre the day he returned. The commenced to slaughter each other for the next decade.

        1. California”s glorious future as a third world nation!

  12. I think the top-two system does reflect the voters’ choices better; the primary system itself is at fault. Without top-two, most elections would come down to Dem vs Rep and the Dem would still win.

    My system would instead have one election, no primary; the top three vote getters would be elected; and each would proxy the votes they got. All remaining votes would go to a randomly selected volunteer from all voters; when you vote, you’d fill out a separate contact form to volunteer.

    Three winners reduces the impact of the two party system. The volunteers are wild cards who the political system has no control over.

    Any legislator in any chamber can introduce bills. They sit in public review for 30 days, and if more than half of the legislators in each chamber have signed up for approval, the bill becomes law. Any changes during that review period restart the period. Parties would of course try to rein in their members, but at least that would be more obvious than bottling things up in committees.

    Laws are repealed if more than half the legislators in any chamber sign up for repeal.

    1. Yeah, lets give that a try.

    2. This is so crazy it might just work.

    3. You do realize you just described multi-seat proportional voting, but made it even more complicated, right?

      That said, I’m down for it.

      But I still think Shackford is clutching the pearls a bit hard.

  13. Not to mention it keeps third parties off the ballot entirely.

    1. If third parties have any chance in the normal system, they’d win a spot in the runoff. This top-two thing is just a runoff, nothing extraordinary weird about it.

    2. Nah, there were plenty of non-affiliated and third-party candidates on the primary. The highest ranking one for senate though didn’t break 1%.

      Them appearing on the general election ballot wouldn’t have made it more of a “real choice”.

      1. An open primary is an oxymoron. A closed general election is an oxymoron. They are perverse and corrupt.

  14. I think this system could be good with a few changes. How about the top 3 or 4 candidates getting on the general election ballot? Seems like that would be close to a guarantee that you’d get more than one party on the ballot.

    The current party primary system has always bothered me. Why are state governments running elections and membership roles for what are essentially private clubs? And why should a party be guaranteed a spot on the ballot when a large majority always votes for the other party?

    But, on the other hand, because of the way parties are entrenched and the way people form tribal identities around them, I can see the problems of only having one party on the ballot. I suppose it depends on whether you think that the democratic aspects of our system are valuable because they allow the majority of voters to most precisely pick what they want, or if it is to serve as a check on too much power falling into the hands of a particular group. I tend to go with the latter. I don’t think democracy is inherently any more virtuous than any other political system. It’s value is mostly in creating unpredictability and allowing people to toss out officials when they really fuck up.

    1. Why are state governments running elections and membership roles for what are essentially private clubs?

      Do you really have to ask?

    2. I agree, government should not be involved with political parties.

      Which is actually why I like jungle primary if I can’t get my preferred system. Aside from having a letter next to your name, party doesn’t really matter. Want to get on the primary? Low entry requirements that independents can reach. Want to be on the general? Gotta be a top-two. No preference or privilege based on party.

      I’d be even happier with it if they dropped the party affiliation indication all-together, but that’s too much to ask right now.

      1. “Jungle primary” is not a primary. It is a general election, as it is the only open election. A closed general election is an oxymoron.

        If you want the parties to choose their nominees in something other than a primary system, fine, but don’t wreck the general election to do it.

  15. This is a bogus analysis. If your preference is #3 or lower, what difference does it make whether s/he’s KO’d in the 1st vote or the 2nd? Also, if you think ranked choice is so great (I don’t know why they changed the name from IRV), what’s the next closest of the choices mentioned? Top 2!

    In a polity dominated by 1 party, of course the real action’s going to be in that party’s primary. In such a situation, top 2 is frequently going to give a more meaningful choice than is the usual primaries+general system.

    1. +1

      It just makes the runoff happen sooner. No effective difference, and it does reflect the voters’ choices better.

      1. I agree that IRV (I don’t like the term “ranked choice” because there are other ranked choice systems too, such as STV) is a little better than top 2, especially if you do away with primaries before the IRV, but the difference between IRV & top 2 is less than that between top 2 and plurality primaries+general.

        Seems to me this is all paranoid rxn formation vs. top 2 because the Western states are so Democrat-dominated that anything they institute in election reform must be a commie plot, amirite? My understanding is that much of the push for top 2 in Calif. (maybe not in Wash.) was from Republicans who wanted a 2nd bite of the apple. Also, I think a lot of the complaining comes from LPers who just don’t like seeing the label “Libertarian” excluded from what they consider the “real” election; what if top-2 were non-partisan & had no party labels at all appear on the ballot?

        1. Also, top 2 is better than regular open primaries, because open primaries invite insincere crossover voting, where you try to saddle the other party w the less electable nominee. The “jungle” primary of top-2 seems unsusceptible to such shenanigans.

        2. what if top-2 were non-partisan & had no party labels at all appear on the ballot?

          IIRC from 2016 (I didn’t participate in the primary this year), the ballot has groupings based on party affiliation so you can know what someone’s letter is even if you don’t know anything else about them. But that’s just informational, doesn’t change the mechanics of it all.

          If you stripped party information from the ballot, you’d basically just have the same names, but without indications for who belonged to what party, requiring more a priori knowledge on the part of the voter.

          But it would be functionally the same.

    2. It strikes me that the best strategy for a party, especially one that had a disadvantage in numbers, would be to put up as few candidates as possible in the primary, preferably only one. That is if party identification is as strong as it appears to be.

      Of course, I assume that just about anyone can put their name into the primary so the above is not likely going to happen without a hell of a lot of backroom deals and organizing (which for all I know might not even be allowed.).

  16. Given only two candidates

    Aren’t all voters eligible to vote in the open primary?

    1. Yes, but it seems commenters don’t consider that the “real” election.

    2. A more descriptive word for “open primary” would be “general election” and the November election day “mandatory run off”. The primary elections have less turnout and are more effected by the extremes. This is a system that is easy to have perverse results. It is emblematic of California’s descent into a banana republic.

  17. Names matter. I think Instant Runoff is the best name for ranked choice voting. You have to sell the idea, people are jumpy about anything new. I think Instant Runoff would definitely help Libertarians, probably get them up to 10% in a lot of places. I would definitely vote Libertarian in any race where there was a candidate if there was Instant Runoff.

  18. “Real choice”?

    Shackford, in the Jungle Primary Feinstein got 44% of the vote. If you total every non-Democrat vote, you only get 36.7%. If Bradley had gone against her, it would have been a 60-something to 30-something crush.

    A Feinstein/de Leon match was much more “real”, and ended up being a 50-something to 40-something.

  19. (yawn) Anti-gummint hysteria at work. Candidates don’t run, but let’s blame something else … especially when I just described a fairly obvious fact that somehow never occurred to Shackford.

    Top-two works well in WA, where I believe it started, and was immensely helpful when I ran that state’s LP. Worked well in progressive Seattle and far-right North Central and Far West. We were in maybe 80% of the debates and newspaper profiles. Not sure, but CA seems a LOT more partisan-concentrated than even WA. And their GOP should now be seen as among the most inept in America. How much are the data skewed by this year’s blue wave, which was extra massive in California?

    There’s no meat here.

  20. Who has a better chance of beating the lefty Dem in the general? A Republican or a less lefty Dem?

    You guys suck at game theory.

  21. I see another problem with the California system and much of the west cost. I see where the majority party mostly democrat will be able to control the redistricting of the state after the 2020 census to reduce the possibility of any minority party will be able to get elected. The system will be drawn so that the voters will have a choice only between this liberal candidate or this not as liberal candidate. This will force out the more conservative candidates.

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