As the fall election season nears its welcome end, there are a few people and parties missing, at least in California: The candidates of the Green, Libertarian, American Independent and Peace and Freedom parties.
When all the votes were tallied after last June’s primary election, not a single member of those parties finished in the top two in any of the state’s 233 legislative and congressional districts. That means they won’t be a ballot presence anywhere in California this fall except on the presidential level. It’s one result of the “jungle primary” primary system voters adopted via a 2010 initiative, but one of the most significant – and definitely the result that drew the most whines.
“It’s not a good situation” Kevin Takenaga, chairman of the state’s Libertarian Party griped to a reporter just before the primary. “It will force people to these established candidates – the ones who have…more major party support.”
Not necessarily: There are a couple of independents, people who refuse to declare loyalty to any political party, still politically alive.
What makes the complaining from the minor parties pure whining is that they had their chance. The June success and/or near-success of some independents demonstrates that candidates not labeled either Democrat or Republican can do well – if they have a message or a record that appeals to masses of voters.
If they don’t, they don’t deserve to be in the runoff with those who demonstrated far wider appeal, and should get out of the way.
For the presence of minor party candidates in runoff elections can distort the eventual outcome by siphoning votes away from major party candidates with similar views.
It doesn’t happen often, but it might have in two statewide races of the last 10 years, one of them the razor-thin 2010 election of current Attorney General Kamala Harris, a Democrat, over Republican Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley.
Harris won that contest by a margin of just 74,157 votes over Cooley in a contest whose outcome wasn’t certain until about a month after Election Day. Meanwhile, 835,000 votes went to minor party candidates in that race, about 9 percent of the total cast, or close to one ballot in every 10.
As it turned out, the Green and Peace and Freedom candidates’ (both much closer to most Democrats than to almost any Republican) combined tally of just over 419,000 narrowly topped the combined Libertarian and American Independent (somewhat akin in outlook to Republicans) total of 416,000. What if all those votes had been cast for Harris and Cooley, but not necessarily along predictable party lines? They could have altered the outcome.
The small parties did change of outcome of the even narrower 2002 contest for state controller between liberal Democrat Steve Westly and conservative Republican Tom McClintock, who later won a seat in Congress.
Westly won that race by 16,800 votes out of more than 6.5 million cast. Meanwhile, Green Party candidate Laura Wells took 419,000 votes, or almost 6 percent. Had she not been on the ballot that year, chances are most of those votes would have been Westly’s, and the state would have been spared a full month of suspense over the outcome.
Farther back, in 1986, American Independent and Libertarian candidates drew 176,000 votes in a U.S. Senate contest won by Democrat Alan Cranston by just 105,000 over Republican Ed Zschau. Essentially, the third parties gave a fourth term to Cranston, whose supporters spent more than $500,000 promoting the candidacy of American Independent hopeful Edward Vallen in a successful effort to siphon votes away from Zschau.
This amounted to a distortion of the election, which saw more conservative than liberal-leaning votes cast, only to have a liberal senator win.
It will now be impossible for any minor party candidate to influence the runoff election outcome, whether to swing an election like Cranston’s or merely to make some races tighter than they needed to be, as with the Harris and Westly victories.
But what about the minor parties’ bleat that effectively excluding them from the November ballot stifles voices that can sometimes push valuable ideas?
That doesn’t wash, either. Nothing prevents those ideas from getting a full airing during the primary.
Will all this drive minor parties out of business? It could, as one way they’ve stayed alive has been by winning at least 2 percent of the vote in any statewide election. But they can also survive by registering voters in numbers amounting to 1 percent of the last total vote for governor.
So minor parties with even marginal support ought to be able to stick around. If they don’t, it will be because they don’t have much appeal.
The bottom line is that getting what amounts to deadwood out of the way in runoff elections simplifies the ballot, which is already complex enough because of the all the initiatives it features. And if that leads more people to vote, so much the better.