SYNDICATED COLUMN: Why Blended Primaries Are an Assault on Democracy

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California’s “jungle primary” system, in which the two candidates who win the most votes advance to the general election in November regardless of their party affiliation, might have resulted in several bizarre outcomes. Look out: given the state’s role as a political trendsetter, this weirdness could go national someday.

Two Democrats could have wound up facing off against one another for governor, leaving the state’s Republicans with no candidate to support. Democrats narrowly avoided getting shut out of four Congressional races in majority Democratic districts, which would have led to a twisted form of antimajoritarianism. Most citizens of a district would not have had a chance to vote for a candidate representing their preferred party.

Democracy dodged a bullet — this time.

Voters weren’t as lucky in 2012, two years after Californians approved a ballot referendum instituting the top-two scheme. Six candidates ran for the U.S. House seat representing the 31st district, which had a clear plurality of Democrats. Because there were four candidates on the Democratic side to split the vote, however, only the two Republicans made it to the general election.

In 2016 Democrat Kamala Harris won California’s U.S. Senate seat, against a fellow Democrat. Republican candidates had been eliminated in the top-two primary. Sixteen percent of voters, no doubt including many annoyed Republicans, left their senate ballots blank, the highest rate in seven decades.

Proponents argued in 2010 that jungle primaries would lead to the election of more moderates. “We want to change the dysfunctional political system and we want to get rid of the paralysis and the partisan bickering,” said then-outgoing California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a moderate Republican, after voters approved Proposition 14. But there is no evidence the jungle primary system has led to more moderate candidates, much less to more victorious moderate candidates.

“The leading [2018] Democratic contenders [for governor]…have pledged new spending on social programs,” Reid Wilson reports in The Hill. “The leading Republicans…are pitching themselves as Tea Party allies of President Trump.” These candidates reflect an electorate with whom polarization is popular. “Republicans are in a Republican silo. Democrats are in a Democratic silo. And independents don’t show up in the numbers that one might hope,” notes John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College and a former spokesman for the Republican National Committee.

A bland cabal of militant moderates controls the media, which they use to endlessly promote the same anti-party line: American politics are too polarized, causing demagoguery, Congressional gridlock and incivility at family gatherings. Centrism must be the solution.

It is a solution without a problem.

In the real world where actual American voters live, partisanship prompts political engagement. Hardcore liberals and conservatives vote and contribute to campaigns in greater numbers than swing voters. Rather than turn people off, partisanship makes for exciting, engaging elections — which gets people off their couches and into the polls, as seen in 2016.

As seen in 2012, moderation is boring.

It’s also becoming irrelevant. A 2014 Pew poll found that the most politically active members of both major parties are increasingly comprised of ideological purists: 38% of Democrats were consistent liberals, up from a mere 8% in 1994. Among Republicans 33% were consistent conservatives, up from 23%. It’s a safe bet those numbers will continue to rise.

Media trends and vote counts are clear. People prefer sharply defined political parties. Reaching across the aisle feels like treason. Compromise is for sellouts. A strident Donald Trump and a shouting Bernie Sanders own the souls of their respective parties.

Yet, defying the will of the people, shadowy organizations like No Labels and the Independent Voter Project and people like the late Pete Peterson continue to promote party-busting electoral structures like California’s “jungle primary” and so-called “open primaries” in which registered Democrats and independents can vote in Republican primaries and vice versa. And it’s working. Washington, Nebraska and Louisiana have versions of jungle primaries; 23 states have open presidential primaries.

These blended primaries purport to promote democracy. They’re really antidemocratic wolves in reasonable-sounding clothing.

Far more voters turn out for general elections (42% in California’s previous gubernatorial election in 2014), not primaries (25%). Blended primaries disenfranchise voters while placing a disproportionate amount of power in the hands of the few who turn out for primaries.

Despite the possibility of organized mischief-making, the threat posed by an army of Democrats cross-voting for the least-feasible Republican in a primary race (and vice versa) remains purely theoretical. However, there is a real-world concern: when a jungle primary shuts out one party from a major race like for governor or senate, it tends to depress turnout among the excluded party’s supporters in the general election, which can have a ripple effect down-ballot, even on races in which both parties have a standardbearer.

Like it or not — and I don’t — we still have a two-party system. Representative democracy would be better served by a more inclusive regime that broadens the ideological spectrum, whether it’s rank-choice voting or moving to a European-style parliamentary system or something else entirely. Until we think things through and have a new system to replace it, the current two-party system ought not to be insipidly sabotaged as though nibbled to death by feckless ducks.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of “Francis: The People’s Pope.” You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)


16 thoughts on “SYNDICATED COLUMN: Why Blended Primaries Are an Assault on Democracy

    • «Weren’t we obliged to vote for the the 13-dimensional tic-tac-toe wizard in 2016 to avoid this kind of shit?» Which «wizard» was that falco ? Surely not the sad fool with an IQ of 50 who compulsively posts her/his rants to these threads ?… 😉


      • Hi Henri,

        No, not THAT wizard. (Although, we might have, in fact, done better with a person with an IQ of 40 as president.)

        It was a semi-garbled††† reference to Barack Hussein Obumma (aka “Obama”) who was breathlessly billed as having the intellectual capacity of a multi-dimensional chess master.###

        Of course his political prowess***, as typified by the monumental Garland Merrick fiasco, was at the level of pre-beginner tic-tac-toe.
        ††† It seemed a dead thread so I was expecting either no (rational) response … or one from the local, self-proclaimed wizard telling me that only Cheech and Chong dialogues matter and my opinion could suck eggs.

        ### Of course, he WAS a constitutional scholar that we foolishly misinterpreted to mean he would restore said constitution, as opposed to setting fire to the shreds of said constitution left on the floor by Cheney/Bush and their BIPARTISAN co-conspirators in congress.

        *** Assuming that he was not simply a GOP plant all along!

      • «It was a semi-garbled††† reference to Barack Hussein Obumma (aka “Obama”) who was breathlessly billed as having the intellectual capacity of a multi-dimensional chess master.» Now don’t be snotty, falco – Mr Obama solved all the Constitutional crises facing your country, and took the world down the path to nuclear disarmament. Just ask Thorbjørn Jagland (né Johansen)…. 😉


  1. Interesting to note that prior to the adoption of Amendment XII in 1804, the Vice President of the United States was chosen by a similar procedure in accordance with Article II, Section 1, Clause 3 of that country’s constitution ; i e, the person who received the next highest number of Elector’s votes, after the one chosen to be President, became Vice President, irrespective of party affiliation. The first US presidential election was held in 1788-89 ; thus it took only some 15 years for the generation of the «Founding Fathers» and their immediate successors to realise that a mistake had been made. Perhaps by 2025, Californians will have changed their minds…. 😉


    • Poor, poor deluded webfoot
      In the US political office was decided by gang fights between the Southern owned Negro’s and the Northern Indentured Irish.
      Soccer, Rugby and anything involving a dead animal head also derive from this practice.
      Originally it was known as “Spooning” before the porn industry adopted the term similar to how Gay once meant happy instead of the modern effeminate angry upper middle class white males who hates trannies and lesbians.
      Do not confuse “Spooning” with a ” Spoonerism”, which means to gouge out eyes with a teaspoon not of silver. Silver fights infections.
      William Archibald Spooner carried a splintered and bloody spoon in his waistcoat pocket. He applied this weapon effectively to both French and Indians in the great Quebec Thousand island police action,
      Both friends and enemies would cower in fear if his name was even mentioned. No one was ever allowed to repeat his name three times in a row.
      Early on Spooner became addicted to a concoction of Amanita Muscaria, water Moccasin venom, and Indian semen.
      He kidnapped both Indians and Swedish farm girls. He used the women to milk both the venom and semem.
      Thus he inadvertently coined the term “Swedish milkmaid”. And also was the source of many farmers daughters jokes.
      Historically those jokes always ended in some form of kidnapping. Like the Little Mermaid before Disney tarted her up. Man fish love please, that’s like the human centaur infant on Xena. Go to Mexico boys and pay for the donkey show this is not for children.
      Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Boston lobby has a statue of Spooner. In one hand he holds an Irishman’s leash and the other defiantly rises above his head with legendary spoon in hand.

  2. I just read on Yahoo! (forgive me; I was just looking) that the DNC is running some rule change mumbo-jumbo that could (or could not) exclude Sanders from running on the Democratic ticket in 2020. ( I often wonder what, exactly, they’re imbibing or popping or mainlining over there at the DNC. The optics on this are terrible. Even if it DOESN’T apply to Sanders, it looks like it is aimed specifically at him.
    I could see the sense of it IF the Democrats had anyone in the pipeline, but it seems to be solely designed to further alienate the progressive/leftist side of the aisle.
    Ought to be a very interesting eight-year Trump presidency, what with the Democrats torpedoing their chances even before the midterms are over.

    • “Ought to be a very interesting eight-year Trump presidency”

      Second term Trump gives Medicaid for all.
      He may actually allow the door to Federal Legalization, well remove it from class a, Marijuana legislation.
      That isn’t even two years in.
      NK, test drugs for the terminally ill, freeing Black Folk from prison, possible female AG if he fires Sessions.
      I can smell the exploding heads already.
      In the end, Trump will be remembered as one of the most “Liberal” forward thinking presidents the US has had.
      Don’t worry I’ll come back in nine years and make you all eat shit over my predictions.

      • CrazyH

        Awww, c’mon. You know Trump is kicking Obama ass in every forum.
        Unfortunately your scripted character is not allowed to give the man any credit.
        I noticed you worked in Holocaust denial in your on going dialogue with the other scripted creation.
        Nothing about the Polar bears yet.

  3. Yeah, Ted’s right on the problems – but consider the flip side. Say we have a district with a completely hated and incompetent Republican (hey, it could happen) and a plethora of competent and well-liked Democrats (hey, it could happen)

    In the rigid, two-party system a competent candidate would get bumped off the ballot in favor of an incompetent nobody wants. That’s not so good either.

    I’d say give the CA primary system a chance. These kinds of changes don’t come overnight, it’ll take years to ripple through the system and for the parties change their tactics. It might not work – but the system we’ve got now isn’t working either.

  4. Those of us who belong to parties like the Green party have hated this style of primary in California. The minor party candidates have no chance now(before there was little chance).
    Some cities use rank choice voting and I agree this would be more democratic. Some complain it would be too hard to understand, but give the voters some credit. It does take longer to get the results, but I think that is a minor issue.

    • Green party is fucking useless, except for a handful of environmental issues.
      Say you want your potholes fixed, ever call the Green party and ask them to intercede with local government for you?
      You want a stop sign due to perceived dangerous traffic, Green party gonna step up and get passed for you?

      “The minor party candidates have no chance now(before there was little chance).”

      You are kidding right?
      You want minor parties move to Europe.
      US system is rigged and you are now at the fucking tail end of that rigging. TPTB doesn’t even need to pretend any type of fairness exists.
      Chicago has a goddamned Black site in the middle of the city. We have poisoned water in most of the country. We torture and illegally invade nations.
      Paris Hilton cried her way out of jail time.
      Rich kid could not be sent to jail because of “privilege”.
      Pedophile Weiner gets lemonade and tennis prison.
      Corzine stole BILLIONS and gets nothing.
      You get searched before traveling and can be listed on a no travel list.
      There is a hundred mile constitution free zone around the US border.
      We have homeless cities, and disease outbreaks.
      ” but give the voters some credit. It does take longer to get the results, but I think that is a minor issue.”

      Sure, like voters matter. Wikileaks teach you anything?

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