California’s crossover presidential primary — touted as empowering the states’s 5.3 million unaffiliated, No Party Preference voters — actually disenfranchises them and others, by perpetuating a winner-take-all duopoly of limited choices, and getting little in return.  In the process, it distracts from needed reforms that could actually enable a more vibrant democracy.

Since 1999, the number of No Party Preference voters has gone from 14.43% to to 25.9% of all registered voters.  Rather than responding with expanded voter choice, the crossover primary only lets NPP voters vote in the primaries of existing parties who opt-in. The duopoly system is otherwise left intact.  Rather than providing ‘more choice for more voters’, the crossover primary means ‘more voters getting the same choices’.   

Despite this, the crossover primary is waxed poetic to the public, including in the Los Angeles Times, as an important ‘voter enfranchisement’. As a result, little attention is paid to reforming the system that in 2016 gave us the two least popular major party presidential candidates in U.S. history; and which led to the historic ‘evil of two lessers’ now in the White House.

What might more choice for president look like? 

Imagine a presidential election with several impressive general election candidates. Each represents diverse constituencies and viewpoints in society. Each is the nominee of a viable political party which truly represents important cross-sections of our country.

With more high-quality choices, more people vote. But instead of worrying about the ‘spoiler’ issue, they use ranked choice voting (RCV), eliminating vote splitting and leading to a majority winner.

RCV empowers voters to rank candidates in their order of preference. If their first choice doesn’t win, their votes goes to their second choice and so on until some candidate gets a majority. 

Maine will be the first U.S. state to use RCV for president this November.  They already use it for state and federal elections. RCV has been in use in Australia for national elections since 1919 and in Ireland since 1921. California could enact it for president in time for 2024.

How would RCV general elections change California’s Democratic presidential primary? 

Today’s Democratic primary slugfest is a result of a forced political marriage of people who don’t agree on key policies, crammed into one of two large duopoly parties in order to compete in ‘us vs. them’, single-seat winner-take-all elections.

What if there were more than two viable parties, that more directly represented more voters? California would have several meaningful presidential party primaries. Voters would have a reason to register and participate with the party that best reflects their views. And parties could focus on which candidate best represents their point of view, rather than which divergent viewpoint within the party wins control of the party’s ballot line.

How do we get to multiple viable parties?  By enacting elections by proportional representation. Candidates are elected from multi-seat, multi-winner legislative districts, and parties win seats in proportion to their share of the vote. Multiple parties would win state legislative and Congressional seats. Some of those elected from the newly viable parties would gain governing experience and ultimately have the standing to be serious presidential candidates. Major social movement leaders may also seek the nominations of these parties, given their enhanced status.

Primary reason to change

But we are light years from this. The focus for 2020 – especially by the Sanders campaign – has been to funnel NPP voters into the presidential primary of largest duopoly party in California — the Democrats — by either changing their registration to Democrat, or voting as NPP via the crossover ballot. Because only one candidate can win the party nomination, inevitably the votes of many of these voters will not lead to the nomination of a general election candidate that reflects their views. 

Imagine if bolstered by a strong showing in California, Sanders wins a plurality but not a majority of delegates nationally, then loses the Democratic nomination in a brokered convention. The Democratic Party splinters. Most Sanders supporters vote for the Democratic nominee. But many stay home, while others vote Green – perhaps the difference in a close election loss to Trump. Or  if Sanders wins the nomination, Democratic centrists stay home, leading to the same result.

But in a viable multi-party system, Sanders is the nominee of a separate and independent progressive party. His appearance on the general election ballot alongside the Democratic nominee increases center-left voter turnout; and with RCV in place, one of them ends up as president with a majority vote.

Which is a more representative result? Which is better for our democracy?


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