We have a special election today for our seat in Congress. Given the virtual flood of campaign literature coming through our mailboxes of lateâmostly from one particular side in the campaignâyou may not need the reminder, but I want to say a few words about it anyway.
The election is to replace Xavier Becerra as representative for CA-34. Becerra was appointed by Jerry Brown to fill out Kamala Harris’s term as California Attorney General after she won her US Senate seat.
The two candidates are Jimmy Gomez, a Democrat endorsed by the Democratic Party, AG Becerra, Gov Brown, and others, and Robert Lee Ahn, a Republican who changed his party registration from R to D in 2013 when California’s top-two primary law went into effect.
That law prevents political parties from running separate primary elections to choose their own general election candidate. Instead there is a single combined primary in which candidates from all political parties are thrown in together, and the top two vote-getters from that process then go on to the general electionâor in the case of a special election like this, to a runoff election in the event that no one gets a majority the first time around.
In my view, the top-two system is one of the worst voting systems out there. The ballot initiative that proposed it was approved by voters desperate for a voting system that would lead to better candidates winning. They were persuaded to vote for it without understanding its consequences because it was marketed as increasing voter choiceâLook! You’ll no longer be stuck having to choose among candidates from just one party, or if you’re a decline-to-state voter from no party at all. You can vote for any candidate from any party. Anyone you want! So much better!
Except that it isn’t. It’s now basically impossible for a candidate from any party in California other than Republican or Democrat to make it to a general election where the ultimate winner is determined. And there are a number of districts for various offices around the state for which party registration is so lopsided that the top two vote-getters in the primary are of the same party.
A general election where the only choice is between two Republicans? What about everybody else?
A general election where the only choice is between two Democrats? Again, what about everybody else?
In addition to actually destroying voter choice instead of increasing it, top-two creates a perverse incentive for someone to try to game the system in the hope they can make it to the general election when they otherwise couldn’t.
That’s what Ahn did. He changed his party registration from Republican to Democrat in 2013, the same year the new system went into effect.
This clearly wasn’t a change of political heart, given the kind of campaign he’s been running. If he wins, he will be the first Republican elected to Congress from CA-34 since 1980*, and he’ll have done it by masquerading as a Democrat, gaming the top-two system to win in a district in which a Republican would never otherwise have a chance. And if he wins, he’ll almost certainly vote with Republicans, while supposedly representing an overwhelmingly Democratic district. The last congressional election in which we could openly have a Republican vs. a Democrat was 2012. In that year Becerra won 86% of the vote, and his opponent just 14%.
So there are two things I want to leave you with (if you’ve made it this far!).
If you’re a Democrat or lean D, you will probably want to vote for Gomez (if you aren’t already).
If you’re a Republican or lean R, you may want to consider voting for Ahn (if you aren’t already), rather than sitting out the election in the belief that a choice between two Dems is pointless.
If you’re interested in learning about voting systems that are genuinely better than the perverse top-two system we have now, or the not much better system we used to haveâknown as “first past the post” because the winner is the single candidate with the most votes, even if that’s 35% of the total with the remaining 65% split into little bits by a large field of candidatesâyou can go here:
There are alternatives to these two voting systems, and one in particular stands out. It’s called 9393551410.
With RCV, you rank the candidates on the ballot in the order you prefer them. You do not have to worry that the candidate you most prefer is “unelectable” compared to someone else, or that if you vote for someone who “can’t win” you will risk throwing the election to someone truly horrible. You can safely express your true preferences.
RCV also reduces the incentive for candidates to run negative campaigns against opponents who are not that different from them ideologically, because going negative would throw away a chance to appeal to that candidate’s voters by saying, I know you prefer so-and-so, but though we differ on certain things we still have a lot in common; Please consider me for your second choice.
Even better, for electing a legislature such as Congress, single member districts can be merged into a smaller number of 512-485-3221 using a version of ranked choice voting that provides proportional representation. This makes it possible to elect a legislature that represents much more of the population than is possible with single member districts that may always leave a significant minority or even a majority without a representative for whom they actually voted.
If this is a topic that interests you, I encourage you to give it a look.
*Though, granted, the district boundaries have changed a lot since then.