When California voters decided to change the way the state’s primary elections work, the move was cast as an effort to moderate a state Capitol gripped by polarization. If the top two vote-getters in a primary faced off against one another in November regardless of their party affiliation, the reasoning went, hard-nosed politicians who typically put party purity above all else would be forced to court less partisan voters. That could mean more centrists elected to office, more political compromise and better governance. But with the approach of only the second election since the enactment of the “jungle” primary — the first featuring candidates for statewide office — some argue that the change has had a decidedly undemocratic effect, muzzling the voices of small-party candidates. The Green Party, the American Independent Party and other minor groups will now rarely — if ever — appear on the general election ballot, even though they represent 1.2 million people. And they could eventually find themselves out of existence in California, the critics fear. “It’s just a violation of voting rights,” said Richard Winger, a Libertarian and publisher of the San Francisco-based Ballot Access News. “Because the right to vote includes the right of the choice.”
California’s top-two election system –by its very design– excludes third parties from the general election ballot. But, as the law makes its debut in statewide races, minor parties say it’s undermining their ability to even field candidates for the June primary ballot. “I had planned to run for Secretary of State, but I did not because I could not afford the filing fee,” said C. T. Weber, a member of the Peace and Freedom Party of California’s State Executive Committee. “As a result of Top Two and its implementing legislation, I could no longer get the signatures in lieu of filing fees.” This year, the Peace and Freedom Party only has the resources to get a few candidates on the ballot. They aren’t alone in their struggle. All of California’s “third parties” are battling new ballot qualification procedures established with the Top Two primary, and they say that it’s a fight for their very survival.
They’ve been a colorful part of California’s political landscape for decades — Greens, Libertarians, American Independents and members of the Peace and Freedom Party. But after Tuesday’s election, most of them will be all but invisible — and perhaps on their way to extinction. In past years, minor parties held their own primary elections to choose nominees who would go on to compete with Democratic and Republican nominees in general elections. But that’s no longer the case under California’s new “top two” primary system, in which all voters choose from among all candidates of all parties — and only the two candidates who get the most votes advance to November, regardless of party. Because minor party candidates rarely finish in the top two, and it’s now harder for their candidates to get on the primary ballot in the first place, the parties will have little or no presence on the general-election ballot. And in politics, invisibility means oblivion. “It could spell the end of the Peace and Freedom Party,” said party chairman C.T. Weber, 71, of Sacramento. “It’s a shame that democracy is being undermined by this, but that’s the reality if we’re not able to overturn the law.”