Though county registrars are still tallying the votes in several close contests, the memory of California’s June primary has already begun to fade from the state’s collective consciousness — assuming, that is, that it ever made an imprint there at all. Before it vanishes altogether, though, Californians should take away one lesson from June’s balloting: The state’s new method for conducting primary elections is an asinine idea that can lead to perverse and anti-majoritarian consequences. The most obvious effect the jungle system has had is to convey a clear advantage to the party that runs fewer candidates for an office. Under the so-called jungle primary system, which came into being through a 2010 ballot measure that voters narrowly ratified, primary voters can cast their ballot for any candidate in the June election, and the top two finishers, regardless of party, advance to the November runoff. Both the 2012 and the 2014 primaries were conducted under these rules, so we can now look at the effects this new process has had on California politics.
The first and most obvious effect the jungle system has had is to convey a clear advantage to the party that runs fewer candidates for an office. In 2012, four Democrats and two Republicans ran in the June primary to represent the newly redrawn 31st District in Congress. Situated in the western part of the Inland Empire, the district had a clear plurality of Democrats — but because the Republican candidates divided their votes two ways while the Democrats split their votes among four candidates, the two candidates who made it into November’s general election were the Republicans. The eventual victor, Gary Miller, chose not to seek reelection this year, in part because his politics were so out of sync with the sentiments of district voters.
This month, the California primary contest for a statewide office almost ended equally bizarrely. Three Democrats and two Republicans ran for the office of state controller, and when the election-night vote counting was done, the Republicans finished one-two in the count. Subsequent counting of absentee and provisional ballots has elevated two of the three Democrats above the second Republican; the vote totals for second place remain very close and still aren’t resolved. But if a few thousand votes had shifted, voters in one of the country’s most liberal states could have faced a runoff this November between two Republicans, even though the three Democrats on the primary ballot amassed more votes than the two GOP contestants, and even though just 28% of California voters are Republicans while 43% are Democrats.