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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.
Under 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?
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.