As California hurtles toward its state primary June 5, it is obvious there’s a problem. Its open primary system — which sends the top two vote-getters to the general election, regardless of party affiliation — is not working as intended and risks throwing the midterm election into acrimony and confusion. This system is called a “jungle primary” for a reason: It is brutal and unpredictable. In three high-profile House races, there are so many candidates from the two major parties eating into one another’s support that the election results may end up owing more to chance than any discernible will of the people. Polls show that Democrats have an excellent chance of capturing the Southern Californian seats being vacated by Ed Royce (R-Fullerton) and Darrell Issa (R-Isla Vista) and have a good shot at unseating Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach). These are all bona fide swing districts that surely deserve an up-and-down contest between a Republican and a Democrat in November.
But there is no guarantee this is what the voters will get. The biggest risk in all three districts is that the Democrats will fall victim to their own energy and enthusiasm and that, even if their candidates collectively win over 50% of the vote, they will be too split to secure either of the top two slots.
That’s a problem not just for Democrats hoping to bloody the nose of the Trump administration in the midterm, but for anyone who cares about a fair and transparent small-d democratic system.
The big flaw in the top-two primary is that while it purports to reward the best candidates regardless of party — the ones most likely to prevail in any two-way matchup in November — it can just as easily penalize them. It has been that way since the system was introduced in 2012. Of the 154 top-two primary races contested at the state and federal levels in that election cycle, 92 suffered from vote-splitting problems that raised the question of whether the most promising general election candidate made it through, according to data collected by the electoral reform group FairVote.org.