June 28, 2018

Horse 2431 - California's Jungle Primary Is Better But Still Awful

Why did the Lion get lost?

I got asked on social media recently, what I thought of the California primary. Now I know that this person happens to live in California and so maybe they were trying to extract some kind of validation from me for their great state but I know that I have to let them down gently and say that I think that the system is still hopelessly inadequate; it just happens to be one step less inadequate than it could be.

Like every state in the union, California gets two senators. These senators are elected for six year terms; which is different to the two year terms which the members of the house are voted in for. Also unlike the house, instead of a most votes wins basis in every district, the Senators are elected on a state wide basis, where there is something called a "jungle primary" and then a runoff election in November. By "jungle" they mean that all the animals in the zoo form the pool from which the final candidates will be eventually chosen.

The system is thus.
In California's jungle primary, the two highest vote getters go through to the general election in November; that's it. There are no more qualifiers or restrictions. It doesn't matter if a party wins both slots. It doesn't matter that there might not be a third party on the ticket. It merely allows the top two candidates to compete head to head in the general election in November. Yes, it is designed to lock out the smaller parties; yes it is undemocratic but it's simple.
It's simple and dumb and still inadequate.

Consider the results of the jungle primary which have been just held for the Californian seat in the US Senate race:

44.2% D - Feinstein*
11.5% D - de Leon*
8.7% R - Bradley
35.7% N - All Others.

This means that the two candidates with the star next to their name will appear on the ballot paper in November.
 Okay, that might be fine if you like Feinstein but the next best vote tally went to de Leon. Why do they get to go through? What about the 44.4% of the electorate who voted for someone who wasn't Feinstein or de Leon? What happens to their vote? Effectively it has been thrown down the toilet and flushed into the wide blue yonder with all the other bits of toilet paper for all the good it did. This is a mockery of democracy and makes issues like voter fraud (which is almost entirely a fiction) and influencing the election look like amateur hour.

Don't get the impression that I particularly care one way or the other, either. The political parties are a lot like going to a football match where the supporters yell at each other from opposite ends of the stadium for 90 minutes.

If it was:
44.2% G - Kitties
8.7% G - Bunnies
35.7% N - All Other Fluffy Animals.

Then why does BURN ALL THE ANIMALS get a go; when they barely represent a ninth of the population?
Surely it makes no sense to even put them onto the final ballot paper when collectively Bunnies and All Other Fluffy Animals represent a portion of the population which is even bigger than the one who won the jungle primary, Kitties.

It makes sense to me that what you'd actually want is many rounds, where the smallest one is knocked out every time and then everyone gets to have another go. If there's ten candidates, then hold ten jungle primaries; so that way you would eventually get the approval of 50%+1 of the population. If democracy wants to reflect the will of the majority of the people, albeit eventually, then this would be the best way. Of course, this naturally leads to the problem that holding ten sets of primaries would be expensive and time consuming; so this could never hope to be considered in practice.
Except that not only is it possible, but Australia has been doing precisely that for more than a century.

You can and do achieve exactly the same ends by effectively holding many qualifying rounds for the general election on a single ballot paper, just by using instant runoff voting, with ranked choices.
With instant runoff voting, the one elected eventually gets 50%+1 of the votes.
With instant runoff voting, it's like holding many jungle primaries consecutively because the assumption is that people will always choose the same option until their candidate is knocked out. With instant runoff voting, someone who has voted 1 next to a candidate with a big cohort of votes, remains voting 1 for that candidate many times over.

Consider the election in the seat of McMillan, which is in Gippsland, Victoria; in the Australian Federal election of 1972³.

In round 1, Buchanan was eliminated and the preferences distributed. Every preference distribution is like holding a brand new jungle primary; so unless people mark every box, then failing to make second and third choices is effectively like throwing your vote away.

In round 2, Houlihan was eliminated and the preferences distributed. In round 3, Armitage who got the second biggest group of votes in round 1, actually had less votes than Hewson and was eliminated. Round 4 is the equivalent of the general election in November where there were only two choices. Mountford is eliminated in round 4, which had there been a most votes wins election, then they would have just won it straight up, despite getting the disapproval of more than half the electorate.

This example not only illustrates why an exhaustive set of jungle primaries through the use of an instant runoff vote is not only preferable but why anything less, and the Californian jungle primary is a an example of something which is less, is a complete affront to democracy itself. We honestly have no idea who the electorate might have approved of in a proper instant runoff vote.

Actually it also inadvertently illustrates why compulsory voting is essential. If you want to make the argument that people have the right not to vote, then this is an encouragement for people to throw their vote into the toilet. Legitimate government only comes through the consent of the people, and unless you are specifically arguing for the destruction of the state, then getting that consent albeit begrudgingly only happens if everyone votes.

Single member districts already lead to a tendency towards two party politics. The Californian jungle primary almost always returns a candidate from the two big political machines, to the exclusion of all others, and with the added possibility of placing two candidates from the same party on the ballot paper in the general election in November. That has the possibility of being even worse than just a single most votes wins election because it produces the means for a particularly keen political machine to completely lock out the other party from the general election entirely. That's not even democracy.

The most votes wins system is bad. The Californian jungle primary might be one step better but it's still bad. The thing is that the two political machines have no real interest in promoting genuine democracy and so instead of designing the best system, you're left with something which is inadequate and not the best. If it isn't the best,  then the people are more likely to suffer the effects of a bad system - and they do.

¹Jungle is Massive! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2iGo-WMamzw
²California Primary Election Results, New York Times, 11th June 2018 -https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/06/05/us/elections/results-california-primary-elections.html
³Division of McMillian
³Courtesy of Antony Green, from the ABC https://twitter.com/AntonyGreenABC/status/1011853609569357824

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