The Chilling Effect of SD's Broken Primary System
San Diego has an inconsistent and confusing system specifically designed to take major decisions off the ballot when the most people vote. It just doesn’t make sense. The fixes are simple and the time is right to end outright decisions in primary elections.
County-level offices, elected judgeships and races in the cities of San Diego and Chula Vista can end in the June primary.
For these select few races, candidates can avoid the November election entirely by getting 50 percent of the much smaller group of voters who turn out in June. These special rules are difficult to justify, but can have a major impact on who gets elected and who does the electing.
To buy into this system, we would need to believe that the primary electorate is functionally representative of the general election electorate, and can reasonably be expected to produce the same result. But we know from experience it doesn’t work like that.
Over the last four election cycles, the turnout gaps have been stunning. In gubernatorial election years, turnout from the primary to the general increased by roughly two-thirds. In presidential election years, turnout more than doubled.
That’s just a fundamentally different electorate.
But does this special system have an impact? Seven of nine San Diego City Council members got to skip November in their last campaign. Of 20 elections since 2000 for seats on the County Board of Supervisors, only three went to November. In the last 25 years, the race for sheriff has never gone to the November ballot. County treasurer has made the cut twice, and county assessor just once (the second-place primary finisher ultimately won all three times). District attorney has made it to November once in two decades, when Bonnie Dumanis overcame an 18 percent primary deficit to win in the 2002 general.
Jerry Sanders never competed in or won a regular November general election. Kevin Faulconer has won three City Council elections and a mayoral election without ever winning a November general election, and may extend his streak next year.
Through a combination of special elections and outright primary wins, Faulconer is looking at a possible 15-year uninterrupted career in elected office without ever being successfully vetted by a November general electorate if he wins a second mayoral term next June.
The shifting electorate from primary to general elections also has a real impact. For example, Rep. Scott Peters has won two congressional races even though Republican candidates won the majority of primary votes both times.
In 2012, only seven races eligible to end in the primary made it to the November general. But in six of those races — including county supervisor, mayor and City Council contests — the second-place finisher won, often gaining 20 percent or more in the process.
These are major swings, common for candidates of both parties and larger than the margins in some recent races that didn’t survive past the primary. That makes it very difficult to argue that the primary and general electorates are reliably the same.
And it’s not just a matter of who votes. This system also influences who voters get to pick from. Prospective candidates may think they would stand a good chance in the general election even if they don’t begin as a frontrunner, but then comes a complex assessment of whether the third, fourth and fifth primary candidates will spread votes out enough to even allow the race to reach November. If not, the candidate may be starved for resources or simply forgo running entirely. That has a chilling effect on competition and debate that undermines civic engagement.
Some will argue that this complicated system serves as a useful filter for voters who don’t deserve to be counted in these select races, or that bad things happen when too many voters vote. Certainly we can invent all manner of obstacles if the goal is filtering voters out, but that sort of cynicism is counterproductive and ultimately undemocratic.
Higher turnout provides a more complete picture of the electorate, and helps make our elected officials more representative of everyone they serve. We know that turnout is highest in November general elections by a huge margin. And we know that when turnout skyrockets in November, the results often look much different than in primary elections. The roadmap to improve our democratic process is clear.
But instead, we have an inconsistent and confusing system specifically designed to take major decisions off the ballot when the most people vote. It just doesn’t make sense. The fixes are simple and the time is right to end outright decisions in primary elections.
Voters are showing up in November general elections prepared to make final decisions because, in all the other races, they are. Those voters deserve clear, consistent rules that put every race on the same ballot, and we all deserve an election system that makes the most of the voter participation we have.
Lucas O’Connor serves on the executive board of the California Democratic Party and is a communications field representative for Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez. O’Connor’s commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.