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The Power of the Primary Voter

Eric McGhee May 8, 2014

Voters are starting to think seriously about whether or not to vote on June 3—in fact, the first vote-by-mail ballots are already being returned. And because of a recent change to California’s primary system, this decision about voting will be more important than ever.

The voters who turn out in California’s primary elections have typically been different than the ones who vote in the fall. They have been older and less diverse, with a smaller share of Latinos and Asian-Americans. They have also tilted Republican in most cases. In short, the primary electorate is the California we once were, not the California we have become.

These differences mattered in the past, but not as much as they might have. Any party that placed a candidate on the primary ballot would be guaranteed to have a candidate on the ballot in the fall. Indeed, that was the point of the primary: to choose one person to represent each party in the general election. Now California has a radically open “top two” primary. Voters can vote for any candidate they like, and the top two candidates, regardless of party, advance to the fall election. That means a party is no longer guaranteed a spot in the final round.

Before the top two, the differences between the primary and the general electorate could affect the kind of candidate nominated by each party, but not whether the party nominated a candidate at all. Today, the primary electorate has much more say over what the general election will look like.

When the state first used this system in 2012, almost one-fifth of the races ended up with same party contests in the fall. This included Congressional District 31, where two Republicans faced off in a competitive district that otherwise leaned Democratic. If the general electorate had turned out in the primary, it almost certainly would have been enough to change District 31 into a race between a Democrat and a Republican—and the Democrat would have had a decent chance of winning. That’s a problem. Of course, this was just one district. But a bias in the primary electorate could create—or prevent—a same-party contest in a statewide race as well.

What’s the solution? Every primary system runs some risk of strange results, but the top two is especially aggressive at closing off alternatives. It might make sense to offer a sort of “safety valve”—the option of a third candidate in the fall in cases where there was enough demand for one. California used to allow both independent and write-in candidacies in the fall, but the top two banned both. The legislation removing these options was passed with a simple majority in the legislature, so it would be relatively easy to change. The bar for such safety-valve candidacies could be set high enough to ensure they would remain rare. (Of course, there could always be legal challenges, but the merits of that approach are better left to lawyers to determine.)

The top two offers a lot more choices to those who show up to vote in the primary. We should be careful about giving these voters too much power to then dictate the choices for everyone else.

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