Round 2: What Are We Waiting For?

The June 5 test of California’s reformy new election system, as Joe Mathews points out, didn’t live up to the hype. There’s more to write about it in the future, after all the results come in. But a couple of stray thoughts.

First, let’s settle on a name to call the thing, one that accurately conveys to voters what they are doing.

“Please, do not call it a primary, because it isn’t,” writes Matthew S. Shugart, the UC San Diego political scientist and leading scholar of electoral systems. “In a primary, a political party permits voters to select its candidate for the general election.” But in California’s new system, Big Government now prohibits parties from presenting their nominees to voters in the general election, as they have throughout American history.

So if it’s not a primary, what is it? When I looked at my ballot (image below), one name jumped instantly to mind:

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2012 U.S. Senate

Clusterfuck.

But that name wouldn’t be adopted by the media, for obvious reasons, and Jon Stewart and his Daily Show crew probably hold the trademark.

So we are stuck with something more prosaic. Since the system is a two-round election, with the first round narrowing the field to two candidates to compete in a majority runoff, it makes sense to call the first round the general election, since it is the moment when voters have the most choice, and the second round the runoff. Millions of California voters will be surprised come November to discover that they have only limited party choices—no minor party candidates, and in many legislative and congressional districts, only candidates from one of the major parties. The big choices, they will find, have been made in June, in the low-turnout first round.

Unless the goal of the reformers is narrowing the effective choices of the electorate, it behooves them to campaign for having the first round of California’s system be called the general election, and its date relocated to November, the traditional date for presidential elections, with the runoff to follow soon after.

Since the California system bears some resemblance to the French system of having a majority runoff (although France, being more realistic about the essential role of parties in the life of a democracy, grant them a larger role), it’s instructive to note that France will conduct the runoff in elections for the National Assembly on Sunday, June 17, one week after first round was held.

Not so in California. We will have to wait a crazy 154 days between the June 5 general election first round and the runoff. Voter attention and knowledge about the candidates will wane, and will have to be refreshed with a huge new infusion of campaign cash collected from boodlers, bundlers, and PACs. If the French can figure out how to conduct elections in back-to-back weeks, sparing their democracy a deluge of fund-raising and endless campaigning, why can't we?