If this year’s presidential race has demonstrated anything, it’s that large numbers of voters want a choice other than that offered by the Democratic and Republican parties.
In our American democracy, do we deserve such choice? Or is it too ‘dangerous’ to leave choice up to the voters, so that we need to be ‘protected’ from it, like Top Two elections do here in California?
Despite receiving billions of dollars of free media, presidential candidates Hillary Clinton (D) and Donald Trump (R) together barely cracked 80% in many four-way polls taken in late summer and early fall — polls that also included Green Party nominee Jill Stein and Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson. Even that 80% was soft, as many supporting either Clinton or Trump are doing so primarily to oppose the other.
But behind the curtain is that such polls don’t measure voter preferences. Rather, they ask a tactical question – “if the presidential election were held today, for whom would you vote?” This tactical question embeds the lesser-of-evils dynamic inherent in our single-seat, winner-take-all electoral system, which often incentivizes people to not vote for the candidate they prefer the most. As a result, these polls often overstate public support for some candidates at the expense of others, and communicate inaccurate public policy preferences overall.
A more accurate public opinion question would be: “who do you prefer to be president?” or “who is your first choice to be president?” Under such an approach, preferences for Stein and Johnson would likely register much higher. In Stein’s case, 13 million people voted for Bernie Sanders nationally in Democratic primaries — including almost 2.4 million in California — and Sanders ran on a platform very similar to Stein’s.
The most recent Public Policy Institute of California statewide poll gave Clinton a 16 point lead over Trump (47% to 31%) among likely voters, followed by Johnson (10%) and Stein (5%).
Since California will likely go to Clinton in a landslide — Barack Obama won California in 2012 by 3 million votes, and the number of registered voters in the state has increased significantly since then — most Sanders supporters could vote for Stein in November, and Clinton would still win California easily.
Such a strategy would send a very strong public policy message to Clinton should she win the presidency — and the votes of many Californians would matter more than they do today, because under the Electoral College, Californians are taken for granted, except as a source of fundraising.
But under our state’s restrictive Top Two primary election system, voters are denied such choices, because we are prevented from having more than two candidates on the general election ballot for state or federal office — except for president, to which the Top Two law does not apply.
If our presidential elections were held under Top Two, neither Stein nor Johnson would even be on the general election ballot — and voters would be denied the option to vote for them.
The future of our democracy – voters between 18 and 35 years old – are supporting Stein and Johnson in far higher percentages than other voters. Top Two tells these and other voters who want more options to ‘accept one of the two choices they are given, what they support doesn’t count.’
California should be a leader in giving voice and representation to all voters through enacting ranked choice voting for single-seat statewide elections like president or governor, and electing our state legislature via multi-seat districts with proportional representation.
It’s time to overturn Top Two. Rather than limiting voter choice, why not trust the voter?