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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.

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.)

Prop. 14 and California’s Minor Parties

So after not posting anything new for a while, you get a couple posts one right after the other.

My article, “Proposition 14 and California’s Minor Parties: A Case Study of Electoral Reform and Party Response,” is now available from the California Journal of Politics and Policy here (gated unfortunately; here’s the version I will be presenting at MPSA next month). Here’s the abstract:

In 2010, California voters enacted Proposition 14, the Top Two Candidates Open Primary Act, which changed California’s electoral system from single-member, plurality district elections to a top two (majority) runoff system. Although literature in comparative politics and formal theory suggests this change should help third parties in California, almost 80% fewer minor-party candidates filed for office in 2012 than in 2010. Indeed, 2012 saw the smallest number of minor-party candidates in California since 1966. Employing a mixed-methods approach, this paper examines different explanations for the decline in minor-party candidacies. Although most observers argue that Proposition 14 directly discouraged minor-party candidates from filing for office (because they likely would not make the runoff ballot), I argue that the decline results from three other factors: (1) a long-run decline in the California Libertarian Party, (2) a legislature-driven increase in the filing fee required from minor-party candidates, and, most importantly, (3) party elites foregoing candidate recruitment in 2012.

If their publishing schedule looks like last year’s, it will be in the upcoming June issue.

So, How Did the Minor Party and No Preference Candidates Do?

One consequence of Proposition 14 is that there were almost no legislative contests this year featuring minor-party candidates. As I previously argued, Proposition 14 combined with the legislature’s increase in filing fees essentially ended the idea of a third-party candidacy in California. As a result, just three minor-party candidates (all from the Peace and Freedom Party) and five No Party Preference (NPP) candidates appeared on the November ballot.

How did these eight candidates do against their major-party opposition? With two notable exceptions (discussed below), they performed as well as past candidates in similar situations– i.e., not well at all. Over the last five election cycles, there have been 31 contests where a major-party candidate (Democratic or Republican) faced just one independent or minor-party candidate. In every case, the major-party candidate won, usually by a lot. The following table shows the average vote share for the major-party candidate in these contests:

The average vote share for major-party candidates was a little lower in 2012 than in prior years. Whereas the average winning vote share was about 80% previously, in 2012 these candidates still averaged just 75% of the vote across the eight contests.

The following figure shows the average vote share for each of these 31 candidates by election cycle. The large standard deviations for 2008 and 2012 in Table 1 are the result of three contests, all against independent or NPP candidates. In 2008, Abel Maldonado (R), who was instrumental in giving California Proposition 14, faced a strong independent challenger, Jim Fitzgerald. Maldonado won with 63% of the vote. This year, Henry Waxman (D) beat Bill Bloomfield (NPP) with just 53% of the vote. Also in 2012, incumbent Democratic Assemblyman James Paul Fong beat Chad Walsh (NPP) with 62% of the vote. Pull these three contests out, and 2008 and 2012 look just like 2006 in Table 1.

So, to sum up. Did independents (NPP) and minor-party candidates do any better under the top two system than under California’s previous system? Not really. The Fong and Waxman contests are worth some additional exploration in this regard, but even with these contests the major party candidates won by quite a lot on average.

Update [11/16]: The above graph doesn’t appropriately convey the futility of candidates running against otherwise unopposed major-party candidates. Here’s another take:

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