Invest in the Truth Today.
Help us raise $100,000 by the end of May.

Donate

    Democracy works best when the greatest number of people participate. It is on the basis of that core belief that the Independent Voter Project wrote Prop. 14, a ballot measure that changed the state’s primary system, in 2010.

    Commentary - in-story logoUnder the new top-two rule, California’s primary elections were transformed from partisan to nonpartisan elections for all statewide offices. As in local elections, any voter can participate, regardless of party — or lack thereof. Unlike our local elections, however, the top two candidates always face off in the general election, whether a single candidate received a majority in the primary.

    Allowing voters, regardless of their party preferences, to participate at all important stages of our election process makes our democracy stronger, our political dialogue more substantive and our representatives more accountable.

    The city of San Diego, though, has its own democracy-destroying, establishment-protecting election law that is ripe for reworking.

    Today, the mayor, city attorney and all Council members are elected under a nonpartisan top-two system. They have been for a long time. In the primary, however, if one candidate receives 50 percent plus one of votes, the election is over. Done. Terminated. So the voters who show up in November are simply too late to participate in our local democratic process.

    Doesn’t a primary election imply that a general election is to follow? So how does the city get away with telling its voters that the first stage of the election, the citywide primary, may not really be a primary at all?


    Help Us Raise $100k By the End of May

    The fact is, almost 75 percent more voters participate in general elections than in primary elections. Additionally, the media pays a lot less focused attention on the candidates and the races in June. But the political parties who can funnel nearly unlimited money into member communications at nonprofit rates, the special interests that have year-round voter education drives and the political operatives who understand the game of politics certainly do.

    So what does that mean? The political establishment loves the 50 percent plus one rule because they can end the game before most regular folks who are taking care of their kids, their jobs and their lives are even paying attention. This allows them to divvy up some elections for important offices and focus their money on the few races that are left.

    Between 2010 and 2014, the overall turnout for the general election was approximately twice as high as it was for the primary. When one looks at turnout among blacks, Latinos and Asian Americans, however, the differential is often three times greater. And for voters between the ages of 18-24, the difference can be five times as high as the primary turnout.

    And did you know that only three of 11 elections for citywide office made it to the general election in the last four years?

    This is why more and more people don’t think politicians actually represent them. If these representatives never had to face the entire diverse electorate – they don’t.

    The good news is that the remedy here is pretty simple – eliminate the 50 percent plus one rule and replace it with a requirement that all elections be decided in November, when the most people vote.

    Over the years I have received numerous campaign solicitations encouraging me to just give a little more so we can “wrap this up in June.”

    How about we don’t wrap up our democracy in June and instead have a more robust dialogue about the important issues facing our community when the most people are paying attention – in the November general election.

    People in office and people running for office go on and on and on about how more people should get involved, how more people need to get out and vote. Well folks, here’s your chance to actually do something besides just talk about it.

    Jeff Marston is the co-chair of the Independent Voter Project. Marston’s commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

      This article relates to: Elections, Opinion

      Written by Opinion

      Op-eds and Letters to the Editor on the issues that matter in San Diego. Have something to say? Submit a commentary.

      21 comments
      FUJI SHIOURA
      FUJI SHIOURA

      In conclusion, having all candidates continue on to a November election would allow our voters more time to become informed, engaged and empowered. Public debates are essential for an informed electorate and accountability for candidates like myself. Democracy delayed is democracy denied. 

      FUJI SHIOURA
      FUJI SHIOURA

      Another relevant reason for us to agree with the writer is that many voters I have met thought they were voting for the Duncan L. Hunter, not the son with the name Duncan D. Hunter.  On materials it appears as Duncan Hunter. 

      FUJI SHIOURA
      FUJI SHIOURA

      Having been personally involved in the election process at the local, state and federal level for some time, I have long worked for positive reform in elections, campaign finance and voter turnout.  

      This June, I will be the only Independent self-funded candidate campaigning to become Congressman for California’s 50th Congressional District. Presently, there are four candidates running in this district, aside from myself, who are: David Secor (Democrat); Scott C. Meisterlin (Republican); Jeffrey P. Malloy (Democrat); and incumbent, Duncan D. Hunter, Jr. a Republican. Let the debates begin as soon as possible. Justice delayed is justice denied. Democracy delayed is democracy denied.

      I personally challenged Jeffrey P. Malloy Duncan Hunter,David Secor, Scott C. Meisterlin to a vigorous, civil and public debate. Our voters demand it and deserve a transparent and accountable debate on the record. Without a November Election for all the candidates, the voters will not have a vigorous debate that they deserve. 

      Richard del Rio
      Richard del Rio subscriber

      Every electoral reform has costs and benefits. The desire of progressives to perfect a system and undercut the parties is frequently an illusion. Consider how California enacted the referendum, recall and so forth a hundred years ago. The purpose was to circumvent the special interests and parties that controlled Sacramento. Today the law of unintended consequences has me staring at unintelligible propositions that I am unqualified to evaluate. These propositions are written by special interests. It is at least as likely that elected representatives would make better judgments than the average citizen. The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech, assembly, and the right to petition government. Each of these liberties lead inexorably to parties as a necessary institutional link between voters and elected representatives. 

      michael-leonard
      michael-leonard subscriber

      So, having given us the "open primary," which was supposed to increase voter participation, Mr. Marston now thinks he has a way to fix what he broke. Yes, the "system" is broken just as Richard Del Rio notes.


      But, I object to Marston's suggestion on two levels:

      First and most obvious, it's simply incomplete. He notes the trouble as he sees it (50%+1 winner) and his desire to continue electoral contests past June to November, but he has no method to do this.

      Second and most telling, he wants to reward those who don't vote in June with another chance to not vote in November. Hey, folks who vote in the June primary know there are fewer voters therefore each vote counts more. Folks who vote in June are knowledgeable about the issues and candidates. And we who vote in every election are truly interested in honoring our democratic responsibility to VOTE, dammit. What with automatic registration, early voting and mail-in ballots it sure is easy enough to do it.

      If you were " too late to participate in our local democratic process," y'know what? Too f-in' bad! Next time, VOTE!

      Chris Brewster
      Chris Brewster subscribermember

      I agree with Mr. Marston. What he is too nice to point out is the degree to which both parties exploit this system in various ways. These are, essentially, stealth elections in which insiders and party adherents tend to hold sway. That's the sort of thing that creates distaste for politics - the sense that the electorate is not really in charge. I lament the lack of participation in elections and would prefer that the largest possible segment of the electorate be responsible for determining who will represent them. The reality is, that will only happen in a fall runoff. Alas, those with the power to change the system are, by and large, a product of the status quo.

      Ron Hidinger
      Ron Hidinger subscriber

      I'll go along with eliminating the 50%+1 knockout, but has the top two state wide primaries made "our political dialogue more substantive?"  Quick now, what are the policy differences between Harris and Sanchez?  It has also effectively muted the 3rd party voices (including the rapidly vanishing republicans), denying them a general election platform.  Statewide elections have become popularity contests between tweedle dee and tweedle dum democrats.

      Richard del Rio
      Richard del Rio subscriber

      I think the California system of open primaries disenfranchises members of their respective parties. The original notion of a primary election is for the party members to choose a nominee. When you allow any voter to participate, you take away the agency of the party voters and allow non-members to influence what said party promotes as the best policy options.  The current system is a confused hodge lodge of primary and general election considerations which leads to voter confusion. Fixing it in the manner the author prescribes will not lead to a better system.

      William Charles
      William Charles

      Funny, its only the people who lose who seem to think its an undemocratic primary

      Jeffrey Davis
      Jeffrey Davis subscribermember

      Well said. What we do are general elections in June that can -- and do, a small minority of the time -- trigger a runoff. But these are not primaries in any common understanding of the word and it makes no sense to call them that.


      Haven't yet reviewed the June ballot but guessing only a few out of dozens of contests are actually primaries. Have to wonder if a suit could be brought against the RoV for misrepresenting the overall ballot.

      Bill Bradshaw
      Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

      I’ve never felt that this “everyone must vote” hyperbole made any sense.  I’ve voted in almost every election since 1952, including primaries, and in several years I was not only working full time, I was going to school at night or coaching youth sports, but somehow I MADE the time to vote.  My wife did the same.


      The claim, repeatedly made by Marston, that people are just too busy to vote in the primaries, or that they don’t focus until the general election is simply hyperbole.  If they don’t care enough to fulfill their basic responsibilities as citizens, I’m not losing any sleep over it.  All they have to do is vote by mail if time is so precious.  If the system is too mysterious for them, maybe they shouldn't be voting at all.  Our system requires an INFORMED electorate to work well, not an electorate  coaxed and cajoled to fulfill their responsibilities as citizens.


      Marston claims San Diego is “getting away” with something sinister.  It’s policy is hardly a secret, nor is it unique.  A lot of jurisdictions do exactly what San Diego does.


      Marston’s proposal is great for campaign consultants and the media, who make more money the longer a campaign drags on.  If you are an incumbent and take your job seriously as most incumbents do, would you like six more months of time devoted to the next election distracting you from your job?  

      Erik Bruvold
      Erik Bruvold subscribermember

      Love Jeff but hate this.  Consider some of the races we have had where there have been 6,7 or 8 candidates for a council seat.  Very plausible to have a winning candidate with "only" 30% or so support.  Or where the parties exert significant influence to "clear the field" to try to ensure that their partisans are not split up (while having every incentive to encourage "stealth" candidates qualify to dilute "the other sides" votes.

      It isn't great but the alternatives would be worse.

      Derek Hofmann
      Derek Hofmann subscribermember

      @Erik Bruvold A winning candidate with only 30% support means most people voted against that person. If that's what you call a democracy, it's an extremely clumsy one!

      No, the real solution is to switch from plurality to a ranked voting system such as Instant Runoff Voting or Condorcet. This guarantees that over 50% of voters support the winner no matter how many candidates are on the ballot. But of course the big two parties don't want this because it gives third party candidates a much better chance.

      Erik Bruvold
      Erik Bruvold subscribermember

      @Derek Hofmann @Erik Bruvold Agreed but good luck explaining ranked voting to American's who as we have seen believe that you can build 2000 miles of wall in 100 days ;-)

      Derek Hofmann
      Derek Hofmann subscribermember

      @Erik Bruvold Put a "1" next to your favorite candidate, "2" next to your second favorite, and so on.

      Rick Smith
      Rick Smith subscriber

      @Erik Bruvold @Derek Hofmann Erik:  Wasn't the actually quote "have it designed in 100 days"?  Which if you know anything about federal bidding, contracting, environmental law is just as ridiculous.

      Of course, he may have made both statements.

      Jeffrey Davis
      Jeffrey Davis subscribermember

      @Erik Bruvold Not sure what point you're making. Fine to wrap things up in June because other times there are crowded fields with plurality wins? Else I'm missing it.

      Erik Bruvold
      Erik Bruvold subscribermember

      @Jeffrey Davis @Erik Bruvold Jeff would have us accept either plurality winner (and it could be as SMALL plurality in a crowded field - or a field largely constrained by back room insiders) OR a post-November run off which usually have MUCH less turnout than June's.  Neither is a better change for participation and "democracy" than the current status quo.

      Jeffrey Davis
      Jeffrey Davis subscribermember

      @Erik Bruvold Still not getting you, sorry. A primary can narrow to top-two or traditional party-nominee for Nov, right? Why are we saying that far fewer people voting is closer to the principle of 'will of the people'?

      Erik Bruvold
      Erik Bruvold subscribermember

      @Jeffrey Davis @Erik Bruvold

      Status Quo - June primaries tend to be lower turnout and different demographically than generals.  
      OP's suggested change - eliminate June primary and move election to November.  That would mean either just ONE election (plurality winner in November) or a run off in December - which in other jurisdictions are really really REALLY low turn out affairs.
      Me - Status quo has flaws but it is better than the alternatives.  Ranked voting would be best but I doubt voters would get it without massive education effort.

      Jeffrey Davis
      Jeffrey Davis subscribermember

      @Erik Bruvold I don't see what you described as the suggested change in the piece. Only text about remedy is "eliminate the 50 percent plus one rule and replace it with a requirement that all elections be decided in November".


      Not sure what that "requirement" is supposed to mean, but eliminating the 50%+1 rule isn't what you've described.


      I'd favor either a traditional party primary or a CA top-two. But 50%+1 is not a primary and is bad process.