Despite Close Congressional Races, California Must Change its Election System

Michael Feinstein
Michael Feinstein is a former Santa Monica Mayor and City Councilmember, a co-founder of the Green Party of California and a June 2018 Green candidate for California Secretary of State.

There are arguably at least eight close California Congressional races on November 6th that pollsters and pundits tell us could go down to the wire.  The results could determine the majority in the U.S. House of Representative — and whether there will be legislative and oversight checks on the Trump presidency.

And it all could come down to a few percentage points in those few contests. 

A Blue Wave or a muddy puddle?

If the Democrats eke out close victories in most or all of those races, it could help define a large national ‘Blue Wave’ on Election Day. If the results are a couple of points in the other direction, the entire narrative could be very different. 

What gets lost in this epic struggle is the absurdity of the electoral system that got us here. Many thought the Electoral College was problematic in 2016 – and it was and still is.  

But our single-seat district, winner-take-all system of Congressional elections can be just as problematic – a system where large numbers of voters win no representation by design, and a small number can determine everyone else’s fate. 

We already take for granted our system’s basic structural limitation, that within each Congressional district, the losing side wins no direct representation, even if it receive up to 49.9% of the vote. That’s an unavoidable consequence of restricting voters to electing only one representative per district. 

But perhaps more profound is that since most Congressional single-seat districts in the country are uncompetitive – by virtue of demographics, gerrymandering or both – the balance of legislative power for the entire country can rest upon the results in at most 15%-25% of all Congressional districts.  This de facto means a small number of voters in the entire country are making the choices for the rest of us.

After the election

Assuming we survive November 6th, we need to ask “why don’t we have an electoral system where many more voters directly determine our legislative make-up than do today?”

In the most recent parliamentary elections in New Zealand for example, 93.7% of voters cast a vote that helped elect someone who directly represents their views. In Sweden it was 98.5%. These countries and dozens of others utilize electoral systems far more inclusive and representative than in the U.S. – elections from multi-seat, multi-winner legislative districts by proportional representation.  

In such proportional representation systems, legislative seats are allocated according to the proportion of votes each party receives. This allows more of a society’s diversity to win representation, giving many more people a seat at the table of their democracy and rendering the overall results more reflective of the electorate. It also increases voter turnout, because more voters know their vote will help elect someone who represents their point of view, so they have more reason to turn out and vote.

Failed Top Two Experiment 


By contrast, here in California we have (Only) Top Two elections — an attempt to retain the single-seat, winner-take-all district system, but manipulate it to produce different results. Now in place for four election cycles, Top Two elections restrict voters to only two general election choices, and have actually made many of the structural defects of the single-seat system even worse

The California state legislature originally placed Proposition 14 (Two Two elections) on the June 2010 ballot without any committee hearings, nor any other meaningful public input nor vetting – neither within the electoral reform/good government community, nor the public at-large. 

Furthermore the California Legislative Analysts Office wrote the official ballot title and summary for Proposition 14 under arguably inappropriate influence from Governor Schwarzenegger’s office, resulting in official text that did not reveal some of Top Two’s potential negative trade offs, helping Proposition 14 to barely pass. In Arizona and Oregon where the official ballot title and summary was more complete, Top Two failed in both states.

Given this reckless history with such fundamental constitutional electoral reform – and given the obvious limitations of any single-seat district legislative electoral system – its time for the Elections Committees of both houses of the California State Legislative to conduct hearings on Top Two’s real world performance in California, and on electoral alternatives to it like proportional representation.  

This is especially important since there are increasing calls for Top Two to be overturned. Absent new meaningful public process to inform this debate, the next change in California’s electoral system may simply be the result of who can fund a political campaign and ballot measure to change it – not the most desirable approach for a healthy democracy.  

We deserve better for our democracy in California.  Let’s see if our state legislative leaders can help us get there.

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