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.”
Antiwar and social justice activist Cindy Sheehan, running for governor as a member of the Peace and Freedom Party, paints a more dire picture. “It seems designed to kill our parties,” Sheehan said.
Membership outside the Democratic and Republican parties and among those who state no party preference is admittedly a sliver of California’s electorate. And every party has equal footing — at least theoretically — in the current primary system, which voters approved in 2010 for all races except presidential contests. But already, far fewer third-party candidates have been able to qualify for the general election ballot.