Thursday, June 21, 2012

Election-Rigging Gone Wrong in California


California’s leading advocates of rational reform, Joe Mathews and Mark Paul (co-authors of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It), double-teamed California’s new “Top Two” or “Jungle” primary system, reminding us in the process that the election that occurred earlier this month was not a primary in any meaningful sense of the word.  Mathews and Paul have form, having written the best book out there on California’s democratic deficit and how we can solve it.

Paul provides perhaps the most accurate description of “Top Two”, although it’s probably a not a descriptor that will be appearing in family newspapers.  He points out that a ‘primary’ which excludes parties from participating in the general election is not a primary at all, but rather round-one of the general election.  “Millions of California voters”, Paul writes, “will be surprised come November to discover that they have only limited party choices—no minor party candidates, and in many legislative and congressional districts, only candidates from one of the major parties.  The big choices, they find, have been made in June, in the low-turnout first round”.  I wonder whether, in constitutional terms, it is even permissible to prevent parties from appearing on the general election ballot.  Proposition 14, the initiative responsible for this latest train-wreck on the part of California’s already mangled democracy, certainly warrants a legal challenge. 

A UC San Diego political scientist agrees that “Top Two” is not a primary, because, as others have been pointing out, a primary is about parties selecting their candidates for the general election.  He points to districts where members of one party or another have “lost the right to even make their case to the general election electorate”, and to those in which (when you tally up the percentages of all the candidates from each party) potentially swing-districts are now, through a quirk of the system, going to feature a run-off between members of the same party, voiding the very “competition” that “Top Two” proponents were supposedly promoting.  (The comments on the Fruits and Votes story, in a departure from the norm, actually feature an intelligent conversation about how to rationalise the voting system.) 

Fine, say defenders of irrational (and deliberately undemocratic) reform, this should teach people to pay more attention in June and it’s their own fault if they don’t turn up.  When your argument about a question of democracy involves “teaching people a lesson” instead of learning lessons, you’re in trouble, and this approach to the very serious problems of political alienation, voter non-participation, and civic disengagement is backwards, stupid, and somewhat malicious.

Mathews draws attention to other failings of “Top Two”, noting that it is highly unlikely that issues will feature prominently in the general election in races that pit members of the same party against one another.  Meaning that what we’ll get, instead of “moderation” or “centrism” (two of the most vacuous and oft-used words in our political lexicon), is a “bloodbath” in which the candidate who can most effectively go negative on his or her opponent will win.

You know your reform measure is in trouble when it falls afoul of the pen of LA Times columnist and moderate extraordinaire George Skelton.  Skelton would be a natural supporter of California’snewly-rigged system which is designed to send “moderates” or “centrists” to Sacramento.  Skelton not only calls the reform “screwy” for forcing candidates who won overall majorities in June to compete again in November, but quotes one of the measure’s supporters saying (sans irony) that “Democracy works best when decisions are made by the most people” (a strange thing to come from the mouth of someone who just openly rigged an election with an aim to giving “independent” voters an inflated voice. 

It’s always been my understanding that most June voters are at the wings of their parties (I won’t call them ‘extremists’, as is popular, both because ‘extremism’ is in the eye of the beholder and because in no sense is a broad political spectrum represented in the candidates who line up before us in the fall anyway).  I’m not sure why anyone would expect these voters to go for the most ‘moderate’ member of their party...it was a series of primaries dominated by enthused Tea Parities which, after all, gave the fundamentalist wing of the Republican Party its 2010 victories.  Besides, the attempt to create a non-ideological legislature goes very strongly against the will of our highly-ideological electorate.  Reformers would be better off endorsing an electoral system in which election results actually matter.

It’s hard to draw any other conclusion than that California’s elections have not only been rigged, but rigged so spectacularly thoughtlessly that they’re highly unlikely to bring about the artificial state of affairs that the ‘riggers’ envisioned.  And that’s leaving aside the fact that proponents of Prop 14 grossly mis-diagnosed the state’s malady, meaning that even if Prop 14 produced columns of moderates marching in non-ideological lockstep with some brilliant (but as yet unveiled) centrist philosophy, it wouldn’t address the real problems: the state’s enormous democratic deficit; the disempowerment of our elected representatives by supermajority rules; the mismatch between the power that voters wield and the responsibility they take for that power; and the resulting gridlock.

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