In California, voters—or at least a few of them—headed to the polls earlier this week to perform their civic duty and to take part in what we think of as an exercise of democratic rights. Turnout will have been low—it always is in summer elections, but it is becoming more consistently low in all of the state’s elections given the cynicism that most people feel with regard to our politics.
But there was something different about this election. It was rigged.
Because in 2010 Californians—not the legislators they love to blame for all their problems, but the voters themselves—passed an initiative which created a ‘jungle’, or ‘top-two’ primary. What such a primary does is throw candidates from every political party—Democrat, Republican, Green, Libertarian, Peace and Freedom, etc—into one big contest. And once voters from the various parties have cast their ballots, only two candidates, from amongst all the parties, will emerge with a place on the November ballot.
So if you are a Republican in Livermore’s Congressional District 15 or Los Angeles Congressional Districts 30, 37, 40 and 44, and turn up to vote in November expecting to see a candidate from your party on the ballot, you’ll be disappointed. You’ll have a choice between two Democrats, which to your mind might understandably be no choice at all.
If you’re a progressive and turn up to vote in November hoping to be able to cast a vote for a progressive candidate for U.S. Senate, you’ll be equally dismayed. For you’ll have a choice between the neoconservative Dianne Feinstein and her Republican opponent. In Barstow’s District 8 and San Bernadino’s District 31, you will see two Republicans on the ballot.
There will, moreover, be five state Senate seats with only Democrats on the ballot. In the Assembly, there will be 17 constitutencies in which citizens will be able to only cast votes for Democrats, and six in which only Republicans will appear on the ballot, including Redding’s District 1. If you’re a Green, a Libertarian, or a Peace & Freedom supporter, forget it...now and forever.
The logic behind the Proposition 14—the initiative responsible for this travesty—was as tortured as the outcome. Proponents argued that California is plagued by partisanship, and that what we need are good “moderate” candidates. Its backers essentially pre-judged the kind of legislative composition that the state needed, and set about rigging the system to produce the outcome they wanted, knowing that California’s voters are generally thick enough to vote for anything that promises to “fix” the state, no matter how manifestly short-sighted, stupid, or just plain counter-intuitive the particular “fix” might be.
By rigging the election, Prop 14 proponents hoped that more “centrist” legislators would be elected. First off, I don’t know what this means. “Centrism” or “moderation” are not political philosophies. They describe a temperament, not a moral blueprint according to which any reasonable person can govern. As I’ve noted in an earlier post, if we had a legislature full of ‘moderate’ candidates, even fewer people would have their views represented, because only a very shallow and a-philosophical slice of the political spectrum would have its concerns addressed. What the idea of a “centrist” legislature really comes down to is the congregation of our representatives around a pollster’s statistic rather than the concerns of actual people. You can’t make policy based on a data-point, and as legislation at the national level proves, “bipartisanship” legislation consists of mashing two often diametrically-opposed ideas together and making them fit to satisfy their proponents. The outcome isn’t coherent public policy—functional public policy requires ideological coherence of one sort or another.
What does this mean in practise? It’s hard to say for sure what the full consequences of this electoral rigging will be, but we can be sure of a few things. Instead of instituting a fair electoral system that might involve ranked-choice and instant-runoff voting, we now have a system which further entrenches the dominance of the two major parties—at a time when more and more voters have had it up to here with them, and at a moment when both parties are beholden to many of the same special interests. It gives us less choice in our general election. Primaries are supposed to be party matters, but Prop 14 effectively denies legitimate candidates a spot on the November ballot. It’s so egregiously unfair that I wonder whether it could withstand a serious legal challenge.
Of course what we actually need is a political system in which legislative majorities mean something—if that was the case we wouldn’t have political gridlock. We should also maintain a political system which, in a general election, allows all parties to compete. Otherwise, what we are effectively doing is stifling free expression.
Most social change, good or bad, has come from what were once regarded as the political ‘margins’. This is true of much of the environmental protection that we have, until recently, taken for granted. It is true of the idea that working people should have rights. It is true of the notion that government should do something besides wage war and protect wealth accumulation by a few at the top.
I’m personally very disturbed by the radicalism of today’s Republican Party. But I am also upset that there are people—and they tend to be affluent members of our society who prefer the status quo, and only favour any political philosophy for as long as it advances their own ends—who would like to halt those on the extreme right by rigging elections rather than by attempting to win arguments.
I don’t think that the efforts to neuter our politics will work. But it’s a stupid thing to try to do, and it is being done in a manner which is corrupt and which effectively seeks to silence views from outside the mainstream and assure the unnatural dominance of two political parties. This is an example of an usurpation of citizens’ rights that people from all political perspectives should be outraged about, and I hope that the violation of our democracy is not permitted to stand.