How people elect parliaments
34 US Senate seats are facing election in November, but the Democratic party has already won one – thanks to the voting system itself.
There will be no contest this year between the two major US political parties for the Senate seat for California.
Instead, voters will be legally limited to a choice between two Democratic party candidates.
State Attorney-General Kamala Harris and Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez will be the only two names on the ballot, courtesy of California’s voting laws. All recent polling shows Harris well ahead of Sanchez.
The Democratic party’s Kamala Harris will almost certainly be the next Senator for California. Her sole opponent on the ballot is … also from the Democratic party (image: LA Sentinel)
The system, known as the ‘top-two primary’ dramatically deprives voters of election-day choice on the dubious basis that they get choice earlier in the year, at the primary election held on June 7.
Only around 45% of registered voters participated in California’s June primary election, compared to nearly 70% of voters who normally turn out to vote in presidential-year elections in the state.
The unusual system – made an electoral law in California from the 2012 elections and also adopted earlier in Washington state – involves all aspiring candidates from all political parties appearing on the same ballot at the primary election.
This year 11 Republican candidates, 7 Democratic candidates, 2 Libertarians, 1 Green and 13 other and independent candidates appeared on the Californian primary election ballot. (Two more Republicans and one more independent also pre-registered to be eligible to have ‘write-in’ votes counted.)
The top two vote-earning Democratic candidates – Harris and Sanchez – polled well ahead of all the other 35 candidates, with 40% and 19% of the votes respectively.
But compared to the last Californian Senate race in 2012, millions of voters – predominantly Republicans – clearly did not participate in the June 2016 primary ballot.
In the elections of November 2012, 7.8 million Californians voted for the then Democratic candidate (Senator Dianne Feinstein), while 4.7 million voted for the opposing Republican candidate.
But at the primary election on June 7 this year, a total of only 4.8 million electors turned out to support the 7 Democratic candidates, while just 2.1 million in total backed the 13 Republicans, while another 0.6 million backed all the remaining candidates.
While it’s possible that voters simply favoured this years’s Democrat candidates highly, the obvious conclusion is that primary ballot turnout was not only well below that seen at a normal final election day in November, but that turnout was especially poor among Republican voters.
On June 7 this year the race for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination had been wrapped up by Donald Trump weeks earlier, and there is no contest for the post of state Governor this year. Most Californian state and national congressional districts are also very safe for the incumbent political party, resulting in few dramatic contests.
And with the Californian US Senate seats having been easily won by Democrats for over two decades, no strong candidates stood forward for the Republican party.
The campaigns for Harris and Sanchez were clearly the two that were most organised, and spent the most on advertising.
All well and good for Democratic party voters, but the outcome now is that at the national election on November 8, Californians looking to support a Republican – or indeed a Libertarian, a Green or anyone else – will be denied any ballot option.
The strict two-candidate-only electoral rule does not just apply to Senate elections. Across the 53 House of Representatives congressional districts of California at the coming elections, 7 districts will see voters provided with similar Democrat-on-Democrat ballots, and two more contests will be between a Democrat and an independent.
Only in 44 of the 53 Californian seats will Republican voters have a party representative. Libertarian, Green and other supporters will have no congressional candidates.
In November 2012 – the first election at which the rule was used in California – there were six 2-Democrat congressional district contests and three Democrat-independent contests, but also two 2-Republican contests.
In November 2014 there were five 2-Democratic, four Democrat-independent and two 2-Republican congressional contests.
Washington state – which has used this procedure longer – also had a 2-Republican contest in a congressional district in 2014, and a Democrat-independent contest in 2010.
The Harris-Sanchez contest is the first occasion of a single-party Senate battle occurring in either Washington or California.
The unique Washington-California top-two primary system is a variation on the two-round runoff election rule, used in elections in France and some other nations, and often used to elect national presidents around the world.
But the French and similar contests do not feature multiple candidates of the same party, so second round ballots between two candidates from one party are therefore impossible.
The California-Washington top-two primary system claims to give voters more choice among the candidates at the primary stage of the election year, and to help break up the problem of hyper-safe seats held indefinitely by one party. But instead it gives voters less choice overall when the election year is complete.
Compared to adopting a preferential voting system – which could be used in November or during the primary season, or even both – the rule that the main election has only two candidates on the ballot amounts to a reduction of choice for every voter, most drastically for supporters of all political parties other than the plurality party.