Analyzing proposition 14

(Paraphrased, with some modifications, from a comment in ‘s journal)

Prop 14 has been characterized — I’d say mischaracterized — as opening up the primary system, or allowing people to vote in primaries other than their own. It really does something much deeper: It replaced the primary / general election system with a general / runoff system. The round 1 election is now not a party matter, but rather a general election; the top two finishers meet in a November runoff.

My thoughts on where this will lead, quoted from the thread:

But the measure isn’t about allowing non-party-members to vote in party primaries; it’s a wholesale conversion of the primary / general system to a general / runoff system. It means that we no longer have a phase 1 election which has a low turnout and is dominated by party bases; an interesting open question is whether the new phase 1 election, which is the one which behaves a lot more like a many-way general election, will start to draw the same participation levels that old general elections used to pull.

It’s definitely true that this will reduce the number of minor candidates; absent a cheaper primary phase, people need to run a working general election campaign in the first phase, and fewer people will do that. For candidates who are running inside a party infrastructure, that probably increases the effective power of party bosses, since their choice of which candidate to back is now being done before a primary season which could have given a seemingly minor candidate a chance to make a visible impact and garner attention. For candidates running outside of any hope of getting party backing, this just further marginalizes them, but to be honest they weren’t ever going to be major players in the general election, so that’s a smaller change.

So what I would expect to see now is: pre-election, there’s more internal party politicking over which candidates will get party backing. The first-round elections will be dominated (as in current general elections) by people with party backing or people with sufficient independent resources to mount their own campaigns. There will be a lot more noise around these elections, and probably turnout somewhere between current primary and general numbers. In most cases we’ll probably see the top two be from the two major parties, but the big exceptions will probably be when a big-money candidate comes in and challenges the party picks; those are going to be Interesting Years.

Then we’ll have a “general election” which is really a runoff election. Not yet sure what those are going to look like, since we don’t have much experience with those in California.

There’s a Washington Post article arguing that this won’t do much to moderate California politics. I think this is actually wrong; if the power of party insiders goes up at the expense of base voters, parties have an even stronger incentive to pick a candidate who has a strong chance of both making it to the runoff and then winning in a two-person general election. Candidates on either fringe will both have less ability to influence their own parties and less ability to run on their own effectively.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Honestly, I’m not sure. I’ve generally suspected that, in a country of this size, there are benefits to moderate governance; on the one hand this slows down reforms that I’d like, but it also slows down crazy people that I don’t like, and having seen what happens when crazy people end up in broad power, I’d say that avoiding this is a reasonable tradeoff. California has a slightly different calculus than the US as a whole; the state is traditionally a testing ground for new political ideas from both left and right, and so letting crazy people from all sides run the state is… well, the status quo. That has its merits and flaws (as seen in our lovely state budgeting process) but it does give the country a good way to field-test experimental ideas on only 1/8th of its population.

On the other hand, what better place to field-test a new election system? I say we give it a run and see what happens. Cthulhu knows, this state won’t be afraid to change it to something else if it doesn’t work out. Or even if it does.

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Published in: on June 9, 2010 at 14:57  Comments (9)  
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9 Comments

  1. Yeah, it’s going to be fascinating for sure. I’m sure that the law of unintended consequences will come into play almost immediately, and in ways that people didn’t expect. But it’s an interesting experiment to be sure – the other recent one that also fascinates me is the states who are starting to pledge that if the electoral votes are out there to do so (i.e. 270 votes worth of states pass similar laws), they will give their electoral votes to the overall national popular vote winner.
    And, as a side note, the following entertaining-possibly-to-me-only thought crossed my mind: how awesome would it be if someone actually legally challenged Schwarzenegger’s governorship by claiming that he was born in Kenya instead of Austria?

  2. Have any states passed such a pledge yet? That’s going to be a very interesting one to watch.

  3. Have any states passed such a pledge yet? That’s going to be a very interesting one to watch.

  4. Washington has had the same system for 3 years now, and a similar system about 2 years before that that was tossed out (we had a couple of elections in the middle which were back to the primary general model).
    So far, from what I’ve seen here it doesn’t actually give the parties more power because they select who they will back. Seems to be about the same number of incidents of the non-backed candidate getting into the final election.
    What does happen here a bunch more is where the final two candidates are both from the same party. Seattle in particular has some very liberal districts. In the past, that meant they’d have a choice between a center-left democrat and a center-right republican. Now they get a choice between a progressive democrat and a center-left democrat.
    Anyway, the sky hasn’t fallen here.

  5. Ok I’m trying to find the link but failing. I read this on some newspaper.
    Unintended consequence #1:
    Third parties will stop being able to get public funds. Basically a party can only be considered a party if they get a certain percentage of the vote on a general election. Since third party will never, well hardly ever, be on a general election ballot (only top two will get there) they will never get the required percentage to remain a party and poof. They’re gone.
    I wish I could find the article.

  6. Ok I’m trying to find the link but failing. I read this on some newspaper.
    Unintended consequence #1:
    Third parties will stop being able to get public funds. Basically a party can only be considered a party if they get a certain percentage of the vote on a general election. Since third party will never, well hardly ever, be on a general election ballot (only top two will get there) they will never get the required percentage to remain a party and poof. They’re gone.
    I wish I could find the article.

  7. I think it is a bad thing.
    This setup can result in vote-splitting among candidates who take popular positions, resulting in candidates with unpopular positions being the ones who advance to the general election. Consider, for example, the 2002 French presidential election, where a right-wing president and a far right loon got first and second place. The moderates and liberals split their vote between 13 other candidates.
    The way it is right now, there is little to no vote splitting, because there is one representative from each ideological grouping in the general election (more-or-less).
    It seems to me that this is likely to result in government that is less representative of the people. It’s a major change, and I think it is a real failure of the California system that it can be enacted by an election that was largely ignored by huge swathes of the electorate. (Of course, I think popular voting on laws is a real failure of the California system, too).

  8. Greater turnout for the primary election was a big reason that I voted for this.
    I think better turnout might prevent some of the bad petition-initiated propositions from getting passed in the primary.


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