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  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.