Would the dysfunction of U.S. politics be dispelled if we got rid of partisan primaries? That’s the contention of Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.). In an op-ed for the New York Times, Schumer argued that the primary system in most states, in which voters choose nominees for their respective parties who then run head to head in November, gives too much weight to the party faithful, who are inclined to select candidates who veer either far right or far left. The cure Schumer proposes for this ill is the “jungle primary,” in which all primary candidates, regardless of party, appear on the same ballot, with the top two finishers, again regardless of party, advancing to the general election.
The senator cites the example of California — once the most gridlocked of states, now a place where legislation actually gets enacted — as proof that such primaries work. But Schumer misunderstands what got California working again. In so doing, he also misses the fatal flaws of the jungle primary.
Before 2010, California government was inarguably paralyzed. State law required a two-thirds vote in each house of the legislature to pass a budget and raise taxes. Divided after the 2008 financial crash between Democrats who wanted to avoid draconian cutbacks and Republicans opposed to tax increases, budgets went unpassed. Support for colleges, health care and infrastructure plummeted, and the state was briefly compelled to pay its employees and contractors with IOUs.
In 2010, however, voters enacted a series of ballot initiatives that brought an end to Sacramento’s stagnation. They repealed the requirement that budgets needed a two-thirds vote for passage; no budget deliberations have exceeded the legal deadline since. They took redistricting for both congressional and legislative seats out of the hands of the legislature and handed it to a nonpartisan commission. And they enacted the jungle primary.
Of the two latter reforms, it was the nonpartisan redistricting, not the jungle primary, that returned the state to governability. The new districts, which were put in place in time for the 2012 election, no longer were carved to protect incumbents of either party. The effect of these changes, beyond eliminating some incumbents of both parties, was to create districts in which the rising number of Latino and Asian voters across the state gave the Democrats an edge — so much so that the party won a two-thirds majority in both legislative houses, enabling state government to raise revenue again.
And what has the jungle primary accomplished? Its adherents had hoped that, in heavily conservative districts where the top two primary finishers were both Republicans, the more centrist of the two would win the November runoff by corralling more Democratic and independent votes. So far, however, that hasn’t happened. Democrats representing more centrist districts, generally in inland California, do tend to be less liberal, but that was the case long before the jungle primary came into effect.
The jungle primary has had one stunningly perverse effect, however. In a new congressional district east of Los Angeles, Democratic voters had a clear majority — so clear that four Democratic candidates and two Republicans sought the seat in the 2012 primary. Democratic votes split four ways, enabling the two Republicans to advance to November’s ballot. The eventual winner, Gary Miller, chose not to run for reelection this year — understandably, since his record in no way reflected the desires of most district voters.
A weird one-off result? This June, three Democrats and two Republicans sought the statewide office of controller. More Democrats than Republicans tend to file for statewide office in California, and for good reason: The GOP is in free-fall in the state; its share of registered voters has dropped beneath 30 percent; just one Republican (Arnold Schwarzenegger) has been elected to any of California’s 10 statewide offices in the past 20 years. But since Democrats split their votes three ways for the controller’s slot and Republicans just two, a shift of less than 2 percent of the vote would have saddled voters with a Republican-vs.-Republican runoff.
Fast-forward to 2018, when Democrat Jerry Brown, almost certain to be reelected this November, will be term-limited out of the governor’s office. More Democrats than Republicans will surely line up to succeed him. But under the jungle rules, even though it’s all but certain that the Democratic candidates will collectively aggregate more support, it’s a distinct possibility that two Republicans will face off in November.
This is your solution, senator? Think again.