California’s new top-two primary system may produce a few general election contests pitting a Democrat against a Democrat or a Republican against a Republican. In one Southern California congressional district, handicappers say the top two could be an independent and a Republican. But no one is projecting a top-two finish for any of the minor parties – Greens, Libertarians, Peace and Freedom and American Independent. If that’s the case, the minor parties will be missing from the general election in November, and they fear they’ll soon be gone from the ballot entirely.
Among them, the minor parties account for slightly more than 4 percent of the electorate, a figure almost certainly inflated by voters checking off American Independent on their registration cards when they instead intend to claim no party affiliation.
These small parties opposed the top-two primary initiative, and some of them are fighting it in court. If they don’t succeed, they have three avenues for remaining on the ballot: garnering 2 percent of the vote in any statewide race in a nonpresidential election, maintaining 1 percent of the state’s registered voters, or gathering signatures from 10 percent of the state’s registered voters.
Only the American Independent Party has more than 1 percent of registered voters, and petition drives are costly, so general election returns have been the best bet for minor parties to stay on the ballot. In 2010, all four minor parties had at least one candidate who secured better than 2 percent of the vote, topped by Pamela J. Brown, the Libertarian nominee for lieutenant governor, who got 5.9 percent. None of these parties has won a statewide, legislative or congressional election in California, though an unexpectedly strong showing by Peace and Freedom candidate Darlene Comingore (15 percent) cemented Doug Bosco’s defeat in 1990 in a North Coast congressional district.
The goal of the top-two primary is to push candidates toward the political middle, and supporters – including me – have accepted the collateral damage for minor parties, which are farther out on the fringes than the most liberal Democrats or the most conservative Republicans. Tuesday’s election offers the first test of the top-two rationale, and it’s likely to renew the debate over whether minor parties are unfairly disadvantaged. One suggested compromise would allow minor parties to remain on the ballot if their candidates get 2 percent of the vote in presidential elections, which will continue to have more than two candidates on the general election ballot. What do you think?
- Jim Sweeney