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California’s Damaged Democracy

            The world closely watched the U.S. election results last November, correctly concerned about shifts in economic, military, and foreign policy that could have been created by a swing in political power.  While the U.S. federal elections largely left the balance of political party power unchanged (President Obama winning re-election over a split Congress), several major changes in California were clearly evident.  The 2012 election in California should be closely studied because it was the first election run under the so-called “open primary” system.  The “open primary” was put in place when voters approved Proposition 14 in June 2010.  Voters believed that their voting freedoms were being enhanced, but the 2012 results clearly prove that Prop 14 has actually restricted voting rights and given the Democratic Party an unfair advantage, particularly over the Republican Party.  Proposition 14 has damaged democracy in California.

            California voters, like most in the United States, had only been allowed to vote for primary candidates in the parties they were registered with.  For example, a voter registered as a Republican could only vote for Republican primary candidates, just as a registered Democrat could only vote for Democratic primary candidates, and so on with all political parties.  Propositions approved by California voters in the 1990s took the first steps in opening primary elections so that voters from any party (including unaffiliated voters) could vote for candidates from any party (included unaffiliated candidates).  Therefore, a registered Republican could vote for candidates from any party in the primary election.  This policy was correctly seen as “opening” the primary to voters that may be disenchanted with their own party’s candidates.  This opening of the primary had become normal for California elections until Proposition 14 was approved in June 2010.  Prop 14 changed California elections again, this time keeping the “open primary” system while added the “Top Two Candidates” provision.  Prop 14’s giant change was to only let the two highest primary vote-getters into the General Election in November.  “The candidates who are the top two vote-getters at a voter-nominated primary election for a congressional or state elective office shall, regardless of party preference, compete in the ensuing general election.” (“Text of Proposed Laws, Proposition 14” Section 5 (a), pages 65-66.  The entire document can be read at http://vig.cdn.sos.ca.gov/2010/primary/pdf/english/text-proposed-laws.pdf#prop14)  Any registered party was capable of getting on the November ballot even with an open primary system up until 2012, the first General Elections held under Prop 14’s new rules.  The outcomes are clear and undeniable to anyone that has taken the time to study the 2012 General Election results.

            Proposition 14 specifically targeted the elections for California’s representatives in the U.S. Congress (both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives) and for the California state legislature (both the State Senate and State Assembly).  There was only one U.S. Senate race for California in 2012.  Republican and Democratic candidates won the two most votes in the Primary Election, so the General Election ballot showed a candidate from both major parties.  Most California voters probably did not notice that they only had two choices in the General Election in November because both major parties were on the ballot.  The General Election ballots for the U.S. House of Representatives were often a far different experience, as many California Districts ran two candidates from the same party.  These parties were able to dominate the General Election ballot in these Districts because two rival candidates from the same party gained the two highest vote totals in the Primary Election.  The final election results show that 12 California Districts eliminated one of the major parties, with 6 Districts only running Democrats, 2 Districts only running Republicans, and “unaffiliated” candidates (labeled as NPP for “No Party Preference”) being a finalist in 4 Districts.  The following table simplifies these numbers:

 

                                             Elections     Dem     Rep      3rd      NPP        Total   (%)

U.S. House of Reps.             53              6           2          0           4               12    (22.6%)

 

“Third Party” candidates were eliminated completely from the General Election because their candidates were not two of the top vote-getters in any Primary.  “Third Party” voters should be outraged at such a result, but so should Republicans because Republican candidates were eliminated from 9 Districts (the 6 Districts dominated by Democrats and 3 Districts that featured a Democrat vs. an unaffiliated/NPP candidate).  Democrats were only eliminated from 3 Districts (the 2 dominated by Republicans and District 23 that featured a Republican vs. an unaffiliated/NPP).  Proposition 14 in effect disadvantaged Republicans by eliminating Republican candidates from 9 Districts while the Democrats were only evicted from 3.  In total, 12 Districts eliminated one of the “major” parties from their General Election ballot.  That accounts for 22.6% of California Districts that eliminated opinions held by large numbers of voters – nearly 1 in 4 California Districts harmed democracy in dramatic ways in the 2012 General Election.

            Similar problems are found in the General Election results for the California State Legislature.  Twenty seats were up for election in the California State Senate in 2012.  Democrats were the top Primary two vote-getters in two Districts, so were allowed to dominate the General Election ballot in those Districts.  The Peace and Freedom Party got their candidates onto the General Election ballot in two other Districts.  Table 2 accumulates the results below:

 

                                             Elections     Dem     Rep      3rd      NPP        Total   (%)

U.S. House of Reps.             53              6           2          0           4               12    (22.6%)

California State Senate        20             2           0          2           0                 4    (20.0%)

 

Though a “Third Party” got two candidates into the final round of voting, both candidates were crushed in the General Election (getting only 14% of the vote in District 9 and 20% of the vote in District 20).  (“State Senate – Results of All Districts,” published by California Secretary of State Debra Bowen at http://vote.sos.ca.gov/returns/state-senate/district/all/)  Republicans were again the biggest losers of Prop 14’s results: Republicans were eliminated from the General Election in 4 Districts (the two dominated by Democrats and the two Districts that voted between a Democrat or a Peace and Freedom Party candidate) while Democrats were eliminated from none!  Four out of 20 Districts eliminated the Republican Party from its General Election, which accounts for 20% of all Districts that held elections in 2012.  The Republicans should be outraged at their exclusion and should start thinking about ways to alter or rescind Prop 14.

            The ugliest example of California’s retreat from democracy was in the vote for California State Assembly.  California held 80 elections for State Assembly in 2012.  Democrats were the top two vote-getters in 13 District Primaries, so were allowed to dominate those ballots in November.  Republicans dominated only 7 Districts, while there was one Peace and Freedom candidate in District 15 and one unaffiliated/NPP candidate in District 28.  Table 3 reveals the final statistics:

 

                                             Elections     Dem     Rep      3rd      NPP        Total   (%)

U.S. House of Reps.             53              6           2          0           4               12    (22.6%)

California State Senate        20             2           0          2           0                 4    (20.0%)

California State Assembly  80          13           7           1           1               22    (27.5%)

 

Again, Republicans should be outraged at these results: Republicans were eliminated from the general ballot election in 15 Districts (the 13 dominated by Democrats, District 15 that featured a Democrat vs. the Peace and Freedom nominee, and District 28 that ended with a Democrat and NPP on the ballot).  Democrats were eliminated from only 7 Districts.  This means that Democrats gained a 2 to 1 advantage over Republicans in the 2012 election!  Overall, 27.5% of California State Assembly ballots eliminated one of the two major parties.  Only one District gave its voters a “third party” choice.

            The results are clear: about 1 in 4 Californians looked at their ballot in November 2012 and found little meaningful choice.  The “Top Two Primary” winners were exclusively Democrats or Republicans in many areas; Republicans were eliminated from 28 elections, Democrats were cut out of 10 elections, while “third party” and “unaffiliated” candidates were excluded from a whopping 145 elections.  Californians were not told that such results were likely when they were asked to vote on Prop 14.  Now that we know its results, all Californians that love democracy should mobilize to overturn Proposition 14.  The “Top Two Primary” system obviously benefited Democrats because other parties were excluded at a far higher rate, so Republicans, Third Parties, and Independent voters should start a grand coalition to bring real choice back to California.  The Democratic Party could easily dominate California, and the American population could mistakenly come to believe that there is no viable alternative in California politics, if Prop 14 is kept in place. 

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