There’s always reason for suspicion when political parties with dramatically disparate ideologies band together for anything.
So it was when the state Republican and Democratic parties partnered in a lawsuit that eventually got California’s old “blanket primary” election system thrown out in the late 1990s, thus returning the state to highly partisan primary elections for more than a decade.
It’s that way again with a minor-party lawsuit now in progress (first court hearing scheduled April 10 in Oakland) aiming to throw out the “top two” or “jungle primary” system adopted by frustrated voters in 2010 as they tried to force some moderation on state legislators and members of Congress.
The new system gets its first full-force outing in the June primary, with no party able to nominate its own candidates for the November runoff election. Rather, the top two vote-getters in each primary regardless of party will face off next November in all districts.
Both major parties opposed the initiative that created this system, even though it was heartily supported by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a nominal Republican. Minor parties like the Peace and Freedom, Libertarians and Greens also objected.
The big parties, dominated in past primaries respectively by ideologues of the right and left and with the same kind of extreme hard-liners controlling party machinery and finances, wanted to continue nominating candidates reflecting their inflexible views.
But the old system left both independents and members of whichever big party was in the minority in any district essentially without representation. The eventual winners in almost all districts emerged in party primaries, making those votes the “real” elections in districts drawn to assure domination by one party or the other.
In those elections, candidates of the minor parties were always assured a place on the November runoff election ballot, even when they – as usually happened – won far fewer primary votes than the losers in the major-party contests.
This allowed minor-party adherents and candidates in every election to maintain the illusion of influence and even possible victory right up until election returns came in and showed them once again getting nowhere. So 75 of them filed for congressional or legislative campaigns in 2010, compared with just 13 this year, according to the San Francisco-based newsletter Ballot Access News.
In reality, all the minor parties have usually accomplished is to air their ideas, even when those notions have languished because the vast majority of voters judge them essentially hopeless or worthless. Once in a long while, some outsider has tried to use a minor party candidate to influence the outcome of an election by drawing votes away from a major party figure. The last time this mattered much was in 1988, when supporters of the late Democratic Sen. Alan Cranston poured money into the campaign of a far-right American Independent Party candidate who siphoned more than 200,000 votes away from Cranston’s GOP opponent.
The minor parties want to keep all that alive, even though the only real influence they’ve had on elections has been to occasionally distort them. They realize the “top two” system will keep them off November ballots unless they suddenly develop unprecedented mass appeal. That’s why few of their adherents are bothering to run this year.
“By limiting access to the general election ballot,” says their lawsuit, “(top two) effectively bars small political parties, their candidates and their members from effective political association…”
Of course, if the small parties could develop ideas and/or candidates with mass appeal, they would have full access to the runoff ballot. All their candidates must do – like anyone else – is win enough votes to finish in the top two in the new non-partisan primaries. That could happen this spring in a new Ventura County congressional district where county Supervisor Linda Parks switched from Republican to independent before starting her run. She’s not a minor party candidate, but she’s not in either major one anymore, either.
The minor parties do have one seemingly legitimate complaint, however. They only keep their ballot slots if they have a candidate who wins 2 percent or more of the vote in a gubernatorial general election. This may not be possible under the “top two” arrangement, as their candidates will only rarely even be on the runoff ballot. So the open primary law, passed as Proposition 14, should be amended to keep the 2 percent threshold, but have it apply to a statewide primary, rather than a general election. A court might be able to order this.
But in most ways the minor party lawsuit essentially amounts to whining by small groups trying to maintain a runoff ballot position they have yet to earn by dint of the usual methods: developing good candidates with wide appeal and strong credibility.