Yesterday, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law AB 2351, which breathes new life into California’s collection of minor parties. To understand how it does so, we need to go back to one of my favorite topics: Proposition 14.
Under Prop. 14, only the top-two vote getters in a contest make it to the November election. In statewide contests like Governor, Lt. Governor, Insurance Commissioner, and so forth, this effectively means that the contest will be between the Republican and Democratic candidates. Indeed, this year no third party candidates made it to the November ballot. In the last decade plus of California elections, the highest total any third party candidate received was about 6.5 percent of the vote. The Republican and Democratic candidates by themselves averaged about 90 percent of the total vote.
Why is this important? Because under California’s old law, the easiest way political parties maintained their ballot qualification status by receiving two percent of the vote for a statewide office in the November election. The following table shows all the minor party candidates that achieved this level of support in the 2010 elections. If no third party candidates appear on the November ballot, then parties could not maintain their status this way.
If parties do not receive two percent of the vote, they can maintain their ballot status by registering voters equal to one percent of the total gubernatorial vote; that is, they have to get enough people to register with their party when the individuals register to vote. As the above table shows, most of the minor parties in California could maintain their ballot status this way. One in particular–the Peace and Freedom Party, which has a long and rich tradition in California politics–does not have enough registrants to maintain its ballot status. (We won’t really talk about the Americans Elect Party because it is a failed third-way experiment from the 2012 election.) In a high turnout gubernatorial election (not this year but maybe in 2018), the Green and Libertarian parties would be challenged to maintain their status.
So why is AB 2351 such good news? It changes the standards for the parties to maintain their status in two important ways. First, it moves the two percent requirement from the November election to the June election. The Green Party had three candidates cross this threshold this year (Jena Goodman for Lt. Governor, David Curtis for Secretary of State, Laura Wells for Controller, and Ellen Brown for Treasurer). The Libertarian Party had one candidate (Jonathan Jaech for Attorney General). The Peace and Freedom Party had also had one candidate (Nathalie Hrizi for Insurance Commissioner). Only the American Independent Party failed to cross the two percent threshold. Second, it reduces the number of registrants required to maintain ballot status from one percent of the November gubernatorial vote to just 0.33 percent of the total statewide registration. All of the parties (save Americans Elect) meet this requirement.
What we have here is a nice bit of reform. The old rules made it almost impossible for the California’s minor parties to continue and contest elections. Recognizing this, the legislature changed the rules so that the minor parties won’t be forced from the ballot.
Well, they won’t be forced from the June ballot at least. We still won’t seem them in November.