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How California could keep Democrats from winning the House

It's like that time when Hillary Clinton got more votes but we gave the White House to Donald Trump anyway.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) CREDIT: Win McNamee/Getty Images
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) CREDIT: Win McNamee/Getty Images

A poll conducted by Democrats interested in taking control of the U.S. House seat currently held by retiring Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) finds that voters prefer a Democratic candidate to a Republican by 7 points. Nevertheless, Democrats could lose this seat thanks to the unusual way that California conducts elections.

Rather than selecting candidates in party primaries, who then face off against each other in a general election, California uses a “jungle primary” system. According to this system, all candidates for an office square off in one grand primary regardless of their partisan affiliation; then, the two candidates who receive the most votes in the first round compete in a runoff during the general election.

The problem with this system is that it can lead to two candidates reaching the final round who do not reflect the will of the voters.

Imagine, for example, a congressional district that is 60 percent Democratic and 40 percent Republican, with a race pitting four Democrats against two Republicans. In this scenario, the four Democrats could divide 60 percent of the vote among themselves, winding up with about 15 percent each. Meanwhile, the two Republicans would share 40 percent of the vote, winding up with 20 percent each. Thus, a general election would force voters to choose between two Republicans, even though a clear majority prefer a Democrat.

A similar risk faces Democrats in the race to replace Issa. An organization called “Flip the 49th! Neighbors in Action” ran various polling scenarios involving the many candidates vying for Issa’s seat — and in at least some of them, two Republican candidates emerged on top, while Democrats split their vote among several Democratic candidates.

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The fact that Democratic-aligned groups are conducting such polling and making their findings public suggests this situation will eventually be resolved. As the primary draws nigh, low-performing Democrats can ensure that their party is not cut out of a highly winnable race by dropping out of the race. If the polls remain close, the second-place Democrat may need to drop out in order to shift votes to the Democratic frontrunner.

But egos run high in political races, and it is possible that different factions within the Democratic Party may rally behind different candidates, fostering resentments if one candidate is perceived as trying to push another out of the race. The advantage of ordinary primaries is that every candidate within a party gets to compete in a fair field, and when the primary is over it is clear that only one candidate has the legitimate right to carry their party’s banner. California’s jungle primary may not bestow that kind of legitimacy on a single Democrat — and it could potentially eliminate all Democrats from the race.

The jungle primary system also increases the power and the relevance of party machines. If two Republicans are cruising to a victory over a deeply divided field of many Democrats, the California Democratic Party would be wise to step in and try to push some of the Democratic candidates out of the race. But such an effort is also likely to foster resentments, especially if the pushed-out candidate is the favorite of a particular segment of the Democratic coalition — such as Bernie Sanders supporters, voters of color, or moderate voters, for example.

So even if California’s unusual system doesn’t lock out the party preferred by a majority of voters from the general election, it may potentially lead to a destructive backlash against the party itself.