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Don’t Blame Prop. 14 for Low Turnout

 

Admittedly I am picking a fight without reading the whole article (because it is behind a pay wall), but in today’s Ventura Star Timm Herdt lays out an argument that Prop. 14′s top-two system of elections is partly to blame for the incredibly low turnout (gated) that we saw in California on Tuesday. He calls the system a failure. While I am not a big fan of the top-two system as it has been implemented in California, I don’t think that you can blame it for just 18% of California’s registrants showing up to vote (or, again, more likely mailing their ballots in).

We are not the only state that uses the top-two system. Washington does as well. In fact, our system is explicitly modeled on Washington’s system. The following graph shows the percent of registrants voting in Washington’s elections from 1952 to 2012 (their first 2014 election will be in August). During the period up to 2002 (the first vertical line), Washington used the blanket primary. After the Supreme Court held the blanket primary unconstitutional, it switched to an open primary system (what they called “pick a primary”) for the 2004 and 2006 elections. In 2008 (the second vertical line), Washington adopted the top-two system, which it has used ever since.

Washington State Turnout

Note that turnout hasn’t cratered in Washington as it has in California. Indeed, turnout in the last three elections looks an awful lot like turnout in the prior elections. Admittedly, these numbers are for the November elections. If we look at the last five primaries (2004-2012), though, we see the same pattern. The turnout numbers are 45.1% (2004), 38.8% (2006), 42.6% (2008), 41.0% (2010), and 38.5% (2012). Again, there is no major drop-off in voter turnout once the top-two system was adopted in Washington.

So why the low turnout if it’s not the top-two system? There are lots of possibilities. Off the top of my head I would offer: The marginalization of the Republican Party in California politics, the fact that we have a popular governor running for re-election, the fact that there were no interesting ballot initiatives to vote on, the fact that there are no major controversies animating California politics right now, and the fact that more people think the state is headed in the right direction. As I said before, it was a boring, low-salience election. There was very little to get people excited about voting. Those are the places where I would look to explain low turnout, not the top-two system.

 

Thoughts on the June 3 Election

Californians (at least a very small number of us) went to the polls yesterday (well, most of us mailed back our ballots and didn’t actually go to the polls). Here are some thoughts, in no particular order of importance:

  • Turnout was really, really, really low–even for a boring election like this one. Right now it looks like turnout among registered voters (who we think are likely to vote because they bothered to register) will be a mere 18.5%. In 2010 and 2006, registered turnout was 33%. This is voter participation looks like in an election where the most compelling statewide race is the Secretary of State contest and there are no big, sexy ballot initiatives to draw people’s attention.
  • At least locally, this election looks to be as close to an all-mail election as we’ve seen in a long time. Last week, over 42,000 mail ballots had been returned to the Registrar’s office. As of this morning, the Registrar reports that just over 50,000 people voted in San Joaquin County. Even assuming that no more mail ballots were submitted (problematic), that means that about 85% of the ballots cast were cast through the mail.
  • Unless I have missed something, there will be no minor party candidates on this fall’s ballot. There will be a handful of No Party Preference candidates, but no minor party candidates were among the top two vote getters in any partisan contest.
  • In 2012, the Democrats blew a great opportunity to pick up the 31st congressional district. The district tilts slightly Democratic in its presidential/gubernatorial voting and in its voter registration, but no Democrat appeared on the November ballot in 2012 because the Democrats could not coordinate and settle on a single candidate. They almost did it again this year. Pete Aguilar, the top vote getter among the four (!) Democrats in the district, received just 390 more votes than the second-place Republican, Lesli Gooch. Aguilar should win against Paul Chabot in November, though.
  • Locally, the state and national contests were largely cake-walks for the incumbents. Jerry McNerney (D, CA-9) received more than 50% of the vote. Jeff Denham (R, CA-10) got more than 57% of the vote. The Assembly and State Senate members all coasted as well (though not all with as large a vote margin).
  • Also, remember, no matter what they say in the media, yesterday’s election was not a primary.

Prop. 14′s Electoral System

A quick reminder: Despite what you hear in the media and despite what it says on your ballot, the California June election is not a primary election.

What is a primary election? I usually discourage students from using dictionary definitions in their papers, but the exercise is useful here. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Politics defines a primary election as an “intra‐party election enabling voters to participate in the selection of candidates.” Indeed, as Alan Ware documents in his book, The American Direct Primary, primary elections were adopted in the United States precisely so that political parties could regain control over their nominees. The defining feature of a primary election is that rank-and-file party members get to participate in the selection of their party’s nominees for office.

Did you catch that? In a primary election, party members select party nominees for office. Because of Prop. 14, that’s not what will happen in the June election.

In the June election, voters from every political party will go the polls (or, more likely, fill out their ballots at home and then mail them back) and cast their vote for their preferred candidate. While the vast majority of people will cast a ballot for someone from their own political party, there is no requirement to do so. If you are a Republican and you want to vote for a Democrat, you get to do so. If you are a Democrat and you want to vote for a Republican, you can. (I’d say something about voting for a minor party candidate, but there are so few of them that most of us won’t get that option.) The two candidates who receive the most votes will then face each other in the November election. There is no requirement that the candidates be from different parties. If two Republicans receive more votes than the top Democrat, then the two candidates on the November ballot will both be Republicans. If two Democrats receive the most votes, then there will be no Republicans on the November ballot.

So if it’s not a primary election (despite almost everyone claiming that it is), what is the June election? It’s the first stage of a majority-runoff system of elections. As I wrote in my article:

Although there is some debate about the exact classification of California’s new electoral system, most scholars would identify the Proposition 14 system as a variant of majoritarian runoff elections. Riker (1983, 754), for example, defines such a system as one with “three or more candidates with two ballots, in which at the first ballot the winners are the two candidates with the largest and second largest number of votes, and, at the second ballot between exactly these two, the winner is the candidate with a simple majority.” Lijphart (1995, 18) refers to both the Louisiana and Georgia systems [which share characteristics with California's system] as majority runoff systems (see also Norris 1997; Engstrom and Engstrom 2008). Cox (1997) labels these electoral systems “single-member dual-ballot” systems.

So if you are from California, as you sit around and discuss who you will vote for in June don’t use the word “primary.” It doesn’t apply to the election you will be voting in.

Updating Prop. 14 and the Death of Minor Parties

Last year I wrote a number of posts about the impact of Prop. 14 on California’s minor parties. These musings ultimately led to an article, which was published in the California Journal of Politics and Policy, about the minor parties’ experience post-Prop. 14  (gated versionrevised, ungated version). Since the June election is now just weeks away, I thought I would update some of the tables and figures with data from this election cycle.

Overall, 2014 is a continuation of the pattern observed in 2012–there are fewer minor party candidates contesting fewer districts this election cycle compared to prior cycles. The 2012 cycle saw a historically low number of minor party candidates–just 17 (compared with 77 in 2010). In 2014, there are only 14 minor party candidates contesting 12 districts. Table 1 shows the number of minor party candidates and the number of districts contested for each of the three types of legislative districts in California. In general, 2014 looks an awful lot like 2012.

2014 Update Table

In my article, I argue that the decline in minor party candidates principally comes from three factors (in order of increasing importance):

  1. Candidates, knowing they were likely not be one of the top two vote getters and therefore would not make the November election, chose not to run.
  2. The Legislature significantly increased the costs of filing for office for minor party candidates after Prop. 14, changing what had been an essentially costless act into a very costly one. As a result, fewer minor party candidates chose to file for office.
  3. Most importantly, party leaders–especially in the Libertarian Party–no longer recruited candidates as they once did in the face of (1) and (2).

I really want to emphasize the importance of #3 in understanding the impact of Prop. 14 on California’s minor parties. Most of the decline between 2010 and 2012, as shown below, was located in the Libertarian Party. (There was a little controversy over the following chart. See here then here.)

2014 UpdateUnlike the other minor parties (with the exception of the Natural Law Party when it existed) the Libertarian Party has historically relied on a centralized candidate recruitment effort. Moreover, as shown below, until the last two election cycles its number of candidates has largely tracked its statewide party registration numbers. In 2012, though, the person responsible for recruiting Libertarian candidates chose not to repeat the effort. In an email exchange with me, the person specifically identified #1 and #2 as reasons for no longer recruiting candidates. (While I haven’t talked with the person this year, I would be very surprised if there was a recruitment effort in 2014.) As a consequence, while the Libertarian Party’s registration numbers have been ticking upward in the state–reaching a modern high in 2014–the number of Libertarian candidates filing for office has collapsed. Only five candidates filed for office this year. The Libertarian Party now looks like the other minor parties in California.

LibUpdate

It wouldn’t be a post about Prop. 14 and minor parties if I didn’t speculate about what these numbers mean for California’s minor parties, so here goes:

There are two primary ways in which California’s minor parties maintain the ballot qualification status. First, one of their candidates receives at least 2 percent of the November vote for a statewide office (e.g., Governor, Lt. Governor, Insurance Commissioner, and Attorney General). Historically, this has been the principal way in which parties have maintained access to the ballot. Given that none of the parties’ candidates will make it to the November election for these offices, none of the parties will maintain their ballot status this way this cycle.

The second way to maintain ballot status is by having 1 percent of the total gubernatorial vote registered as party members. The minor parties are really lucky that the governor’s race is so very boring this year. Turnout is likely to be low, which will make it easier for the parties to stay on the ballot. The magic number after the 2010 contest (which had relatively high turnout–44%!–because of the Brown-Whitman contest) was 103,004 registrants. Given current registration numbers and an assumed turnout rate closer to 2006, the American Independent, Green, and Libertarian parties should be able to maintain their ballot status. The Americans Elect (a failed “third way” party organized for the 2012 presidential election) and the Peace & Freedom parties, however, will likely lose their ballot status.

(The parties can also gather petition signatures equal to 10 percent of the gubernatorial vote in order to stay on the ballot. Given the expense of doing so, though, I don’t see either party trying this route.)

Are the New Republican Primary Rules a Problem for California in 2016?

The Republican National Committee recently enacted a number of changes to the rules governing its primary process. (Rules changes are a frequent occurrence, and the specific changes are generally a response to the received wisdom about what went wrong last time.) Frontloading HQ has a good round up of the changes.

The general thrust of the rule changes is to compress the primary calendar for the Republican Party. Instead of a process that lasts from January to July, as happened in 2012, the party is trying to get everyone to hold their nominating events between February and May. Here are the big changes in the rules:

  1. The RNC increased the penalties for states that schedule their nominating events before the primary window opens on March 1. (Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina will all still be allowed to have earlier events.) Last cycle, Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, and Arizona (among others) all scheduled their events in violation of party rules. This cycle, the penalties for doing so will be greater.
  2. States that hold their primaries in the first part of March will have to allocate their delegates on a proportional basis. (Although, that’s not too hard to do and it doesn’t change the results that much. Again, see Frontloading HQ.)
  3. The RNC plans to schedule its nominating convention in July rather than August. (The belief is that Romney was hurt in 2012 because he couldn’t spend general election money until after he was formally nominated.)
  4. The RNC now requires that states pick their delegates to the nominating convention at least 45 days before the convention begins.

It’s really these last two changes that matter for California. In 2012, our presidential primary took place on June 5. Although we like to pretend that we know the results the day after an election, the results for this election were not certified by the Secretary of State until July 13–38 days after the election. If the same 45-day rule had applied, the earliest the RNC convention could have been held and for California to be compliant would have been the end of August.

Assuming the same patterns and no changes in the date of California’s 2016 primary, California would be in compliance only if the convention were held in the middle of September. But the RNC wants to hold the convention in July. So something is going to have to give. Either California will have to move its presidential primary date earlier, or the RNC is going to have to let California designate its delegates late.

My guess? We move our primary forward. The last time neither party had an incumbent presidential nominee, 2000, California moved its primary forward to March 7. In 2004 and 2008, when the Democratic Party did not have an incumbent candidate, the primaries were respectively held on March 2 and February 5. Only in 2012, when Barack Obama was running for re-election did the state keep its presidential primary at the June date.

That said, we allocate our delegates on a winner-take-all basis. If you get more votes that the next person, you get all of the delegates. Assuming we move the primary to the first part of March as we have in the past, then the California Republican Party will have to change how it allocates delegates to the different candidates.

Update: Frontloading HQ indicates that there is an exception to the 45 certification requirement for states that are controlled by Democrats and therefore may not be inclined to move the primary just to abide by RNC rules (e.g., California). That said, I still expect California to move its primary to March in order to be influential in the Democratic primary process.

The Voting Wars Come to California

Rick Hasen calls this kind of thing voting wars, the extension of partisan conflict into the voting process. Last week, the California Secretary of State certified a ballot initiative for circulation (meaning its sponsors can begin to collect signatures) that would require every California polling-place voter to present a government-issued photo identification and every postal/absentee voter to include information from a government-issued identification (e.g., the last four digits of a Social Security number) in order for their vote to be counted. Never mind that the evidence for the kind voter fraud this requirement addresses is basically non-existent and that these kinds of requirements tend to discourage minorities, poor people, and the elderly from voting. Interestingly, this petition comes shortly after California enacted a new law (SB 360) that allows the state to experiment with new voting technologies (hello, internet voting!) in an effort to help more people to vote.

Here’s the official synopsis:

ELECTIONS. VOTER IDENTIFICATION REQUIREMENTS. INITIATIVE STATUTE. Prohibits citizen’s vote at the polls from being counted unless he or she presents government-issued photo-identification. Establishes provisional voting for citizens at the polls who fail to present government-issued photo-identification. Requires that provisional ballots and mail-in ballots be deemed invalid unless the accompanying envelope contains the citizen’s birthdate, and citizen’s identification number or last four digits of driver’s license, state identification card, or social security number. Requires that election officials verify this information prior to opening or counting ballot. Summary of estimate by Legislative Analyst and Director of Finance of fiscal impact on state and local government: Increased local government elections costs and decreased state fee revenues, potentially in the range of tens of millions of dollars per year. Potentially increased state funding (about $100 million) to local governments, offset by an equal amount of decreased state funding to local governments in future years. (13-0039.)

Be sure to look for it at a supermarket or mall near you. Then, walk away without signing the petition.

Fun with Numbers

Like many in America on Tuesday, voters in Stockton went to the polls. As expected–this was an off-year, local election–turnout was pretty low, only 21% of registered voters cast a ballot.

In Stockton, we voted on two ballot measures proposed by the city council. Measure A was a general sales tax increase: if passed, the city’s sales tax rate would increase by 0.75 cents on the dollar, bringing the total sales tax paid in Stockton up to 9%, for at least 10 years. Measure B was an advisory measure instructing the city how to spend the money raised by Measure A. Specifically, Measure B says:

If Measure A is approved by the voters, shall (i) 65% of its proceeds be used only to pay for law enforcement and crime prevention services in the City such as those described in the City’s Marshall Plan on Crime and (ii) 35% of its proceeds be used only to pay for the City’s efforts to end the bankruptcy and for services to residents, businesses, and property owners?

The key words that I want to draw your attention to here are, “If Measure A is approved by the voters …”

According to the numbers posted on the San Joaquin Registrar of Voters web site, 13,273 people voted for Measure A. (It passed with 52.5% of the vote.) At the same time, 14,809 people voted for Measure B. (It passed with 59.7% of the vote.)

Assuming that everyone who voted for A also voted for B and that everyone who voted against B also voted against A (these seem reasonable assumptions but could be wrong), the following are true:

1) A little more than 1,500 more people voted against Measure A but for Measure B. I think these voters were saying, “I don’t want the tax increase, but if it does pass then I want the money used according to Measure B.”

2) About 450 people voted no on Measure A and then didn’t bother to vote on Measure B. These voters were saying, “My vote against the tax increase is enough.” Maybe they didn’t think Measure A would pass. Maybe they didn’t care what the city did with the money if it did pass.

As for the Measures themselves, I think Mike Fitzgerald of the Record got it right: “There are uncertainties. But voters chose increased public safety certainty over possibly chimeric increased fiscal certainty. They were probably right to do so.”

Fixing Their Mistakes

September 24, 2013 Leave a comment

According to an article in today’s Los Angeles Times, California’s Democrats appear to be learning from their mistakes and making sure that they don’t repeat them in 2014.

Most observers thought that the Democrats would pick up the CA-31 congressional district in 2012. Democrats had a moderate registration advantage, and the new district tended to vote more Democratic than Republican. Yet, when voters went to the polls on last November, there was no Democrat on the ballot.

What happened? Under the new Prop. 14 system, the top two vote getters in the June election face each other in November. Normally, in a moderately competitive district like CD-31, we would expect one Republican and one Democrat to make the runoff election. In 2012, however, the Democrats couldn’t settle on a candidate and so four candidates split the Democratic vote. As the table below (taken from my article; gated) shows, the top two vote getters ended up both being Republicans.*

CD-31 results for 2012 June election.

Pete Aguilar, now the Mayor of Redlands (my hometown!), is not repeating the mistake this time. This time, he is wrapping up the local party endorsements in order to forestall any intra-party challengers. With the local party endorsement in hand, I would expect him to go to the California Democratic Party’s convention and try to win its endorsement as well. As Thad Kousser, Scott Lucas, Eric McGhee, and Seth Masket demonstrate, these party endorsements have important electoral effects. A candidate who wins the party endorsement tends to win a larger portion of the vote than one who does not.

So the incumbent, Gary Miller (R), will face stiffer competition next year. He’ll at least likely have to face a Democrat in the November election.

—–

* As I note in my article: “The astute observer will note that the Republican percentage of the vote in Table 2 totals more than the Democratic vote. For a variety of reasons, including the fact that the Republican presidential primary was the dominant race in the election and that primaries tend to have relatively more Republican voters, one should not take this total as a sign that the district is really Republican and not Democratic.”

 

A Response to George Skelton

September 17, 2013 Leave a comment

So this response is a day late (and maybe a dollar short). Yesterday, one of the deans of the California politics press, George Skelton of the Los Angeles Times, published a column lauding the recent California legislative session as a turning point. He wrote, “It’s a new era in Sacramento — a markedly improved one, so far. Watching the lawmakers, you don’t cringe nearly as much. They’re actually getting things done in the state Capitol. You can set aside that old label ‘dysfunctional.’”

Skelton argues that the legislature’s new found functionality comes from three recent reforms approved by voters:

  • Term limit reform (Prop. 28, 2012), which he argues allows legislators to develop a sense of stability
  • The top-two primary (Prop. 14, 2010), which he argues makes it easier to elect new blood into the legislature
  • The work of the California Citizen’s Redistricting Commission in drawing legislative district (Prop. 20, 2010), which he argues reduced the degree of strident partisanship in the legislature

While, admittedly, I don’t live and breath Sacramento politics the way that Mr. Skelton does, my response is, “No, no, and no!”

The study of Congress has taught us that there are two primary causes of legislative gridlock: (1) ideological differences between the two chambers of the legislature and (2) divided government. The greater the ideological distance between the two chambers (see Congress right now, where Republicans control the House and Democrats control the Senate) the greater the degree of legislative gridlock. If the legislature and the executive are controlled by different parties (see President Obama (D) versus the House Republicans), then we can expect still more legislative gridlock. Some would add a third cause: The number of seats that the majority party holds relative to those held by the minor party. The bigger the difference in the number of seats held by the two parties, the less gridlock we should see.

If we look at the California legislature following the 2012 elections, what do we see? We see both chambers dominated by Democrats, which minimizes degree to which there will be significant ideological differences between the two chambers. Moreover, Democrats have a 2/3 voting majority in both chambers, which means they have a huge seat margin relative to the Republicans. In an era of simple majority budgeting (Prop. 25, 2010) the Democrats don’t have to worry about negotiating with recalcitrant Republicans. They don’t even need to worry about Democratic defections on most votes. At the same time, we also see that Democrats control both the Governor’s office and the legislature, which minimizes the likelihood of significant conflict between the two branches of government (especially in an age of hyper-partisanship).

I personally would add in the fact that the state’s fiscal situation has improved sufficiently that legislators no longer feel that they have to protect their preferred policies and programs from budget cuts, which makes everyone feel better in the abstract. (The literature on Congress, however, doesn’t suggest this is important in determining the level of gridlock.)

So what, then, do I think has led to the improved situation in Sacramento? The fact that the Democrats now control all the levers of power. (And, by the way, I would expect similar stories of a miraculous change in the culture of Sacramento if Republicans somehow magically controlled all the levers too.) The institutional reforms enacted by California voters may yet create a change in the Capitol’s culture and behavior, but I don’t think they have done so yet.

It’s Campaign Season Again!

September 13, 2013 Leave a comment

Hey, I bet you didn’t know that the 2014 congressional campaign season has already started, but it has! Just this morning I received the following email:

colangelo

And since congressional campaign season has seemingly started, let’s lay out some initial observations:

  1. Based on his official biography, Steve Anthony Colangelo is an amateur candidate. He has never held elected office. He may be an incredibly successful businessman, but business success does not carry over to political success. In fact, political science has demonstrated repeatedly that amateur candidates rarely win against incumbents; they tend to lose by very large margins.
  2. CD-9 is a moderately Democratic district. Any Republican is going to struggle to beat McNerney. McNerney (a weak incumbent) beat Gill (a strong challenger with lots of party and affiliated money) 56% to 44% in 2012. Obama also beat Romney 58% to 40%. Go back to 2010, and Brown would have beat Whitman 55-45.
  3. At least initially, Colangelo is pursuing Ricky Gill’s strategy of emphasizing his connection to the Central Valley. That’s all well and good, and it’s a reasonable attack on McNerney who moved to the Valley from the Bay Area when his district was redrawn. It also ignores the part of the district that is in Contra Costa County, which makes up about 30 percent of the district’s population. The Contra Costa section of the district is event more Democratic than the San Joaquin and Sacramento county portions.

All of this means that Colangelo faces a steep climb if he is going to beat McNerney. But who knows? He may not even make it to the November run-off. Another Republican might beat him in the initial, June election.

 

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