Thursday, June 7, 2012

Ornstein on the Jungle Primary

Steve Kornacki interviews Norm Ornstein, who supports the jungle primary experiment in California on the basis that it may reduce the chances for extremists to win primaries in one-party seats.

I'm not a fan. While I share Ornstein's concerns about the dangers of the particular kind of polarization we have now, and I'd love to figure out a way to encourage parties to nominate better candidates, I'm skeptical of this particular method.

I do expect the parties to eventually figure out how to game the system to (once again) control nominations, but in the meantime I'd expect a quite a few failures and glitches. One of them happened to the Democrats yesterday, as I mentioned earlier today, in CA 31 -- where now the Democrats will have no one on the ballot in a competitive seat. Republicans narrowly avoided a somewhat different problem in the Senate race, where they came a lot closer than they would have liked to nominate Orly Taitz.

Unpacking that a bit...there are a couple things I don't like. One is that I don't like that possibility of random effects. The other, though, is that I really do like parties to have the ability to control their nominations, as long as those parties are permeable. Even if I don't like the results at times.

The other thing going on in California is that redistricting this time around was done by a nonpartisan commission instead of by the legislature, which drew up one of the more infamous bipartisan gerrymanders ever last time -- a set of lines that prevented practically any partisan competition for U.S. House seats from California over the previous decade. The thing to appreciate here is that partisan gerrymanders, in which a party in charge draws the lines to maximize seats, often produces quite a bit of competition because maximizing seats usually means avoiding "wasting" votes by creating safe districts -- which means that when populations shift over the decade, or when the party that drew the lines suffers a really bad election, many seats can come into play.

The thing is -- I'm also against nonpartisan redistricting; I like having the politicians do it. But I am happy to see a few more competitive seats this time around.

Anyway, I should divide this up more carefully -- there's the theoretical questions of who should draw district lines and whether parties should own their own nomination decisions, and then the questions of what the likely results of these reforms will be over time. I think my general sense is that on grounds of democracy I'm against both these reforms in theory, but in terms of practical effects I'm undecided about the redistricting question (it probably depends a lot on state and specific factors, so there's no overall answer), while I'm very skeptical of the case for positive effects from the two-top primary, but open to evidence that I'm wrong on that one.

19 comments:

  1. What's your reasoning for liking partisan redistricting? I support it not because of anything with polarization, but because in many states, the Dem vote is too concentrated, and gerrymandering makes it worse.

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  2. I think CA-31 is the perfect case to demonstrate what's wrong with the top-two system.

    A district that Brown won by 7 and Obama won by 15 is, in all likelihood, going to represented by Gary Miller. Down-the-line conservative Gary Miller. I don't think Gary Miller will moderate one iota to fit this district.

    Now, I think we've already identified the #1 pickup target for Dems in 2014. And they'll probably get their act together and fund the challenger well enough to get past the top-two crap.

    But, for all those who complain about the role of money....guess who is going to be needing to raise tons of money now? That's right....EVERYBODY running for Congress in California. Because they now have to win two separate elections, and the first one is even tougher because nobody's paying attention AND the chaos and lack of party signals means something ELSE has to inform voters who to vote for (like, oh, I don't know....ads?)

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  3. I hate calling the new system a primary. Primaries for me involve partisans nominating partisans. What we have in California now is a top two runoff system. There is a first stage election, open to any candidate who qualifies, and then a runoff to ensure a majoritarian winner. There are no primaries.

    One bit that I would add on the party side of the equation: The parties can still endorse--in essence nominate--candidates for the various elected offices if they so choose. Those endorsements/nominations are listed in the front of the sample ballot that we all receive. If I am a Republican, I can see who the party wants me to vote for. The parties differ in how they determine their endorsements, usually at their state conventions, but there is nothing keeping them from doing so.

    My guess is that if the system sticks, and I need to see evidence about how much voters actually like it after the November election, the parties and candidates will start to to take the endorsement/nominating process more seriously prior to the first stage election. You'll start to see convention fights more.

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  4. Sigh. I am afraid this is going to sound very, very snotty, and I don't mean it to. This particular post reminds me of something that Carville (not one of my favorite characters) said about newspapers. The problem is that the front page tells you how screwed up everything is, and the editorial page tells you why no proposed solution has a snowball's chance of working.

    Sometimes I get that impression in posts on this blog about polarization. It is very, very bad and leads to all kinds of dangers. But none of the proposed remedies will work. So we are left with 1)prayer, or 2)magical thinking (i.e. if we hope really, really hard then the political system will become sane again), or 3) a kind of vague and forlorn hope that the public, against all precedent and previous habit, will actually pay attention and enforce a move to the middle before disaster strikes. Or maybe we are sort of left with what a Thatcher-era Tory said about the opposition in Britain, "They will win an election, eventually. Our job is to hang on long enough for them to come to their senses before that happens."

    Faced with that, is it any wonder that the average person pays as little attention to politics as possible?

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    1. Fair enough! But, actually, I don't think that polarization is really bad. I do think that there's something wrong with the Republican Party, but that's a different thing.

      I am pessimistic about reviving the GOP as a healthy party. So fair enough there, too. But I also think that if conservatives want a healthy party, they can manage to produce one.

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  5. Out of morbid curiosity, what happens if a candidate dies (eg, Mel Carnahan) or is implicated in a scandal shortly before the election and steps aside (eg, Robert Torricelli)? Does the #3 candidate take the open slot?

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    1. No. California Elections Code says that a person's name will still appear on the ballot. If the person wins election, then the office will be declared vacant and filled through the same process as if the person had died or resigned while in office. See Sec. 8800-8811.

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  6. If you want parties to control their nominees why not just let them decide for themselves. It could be done in some sort of convention in August and then the nominees can to at it in the general. It gives the added benefits of killing the perpetual public campaign and reduces money in politics, at least on the surface.

    I realize they reformed this system in the first place, for probably good reason, but the result has not pleasing, to me at least. I would do this for all elections. Let the party decide just like they do in parlamentary systems.

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    1. The problem is that US parties aren't really organized to do that. The formal party organizations in most places, including California (at least up through when Seth Masket was doing his research), just aren't very important components of the overall party.

      Obviously, if you made the formal party organization the nominator, then everyone would have a strong incentive to get involved in the formal party structure. But I'm not sure why that's a good, or necessary, thing. IMO, primary elections generally work just fine and are not part of any problem.

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    2. It's interesting that you're a fan of primary elections. I read Alan Ware's book on the American direct primary on your recommendation, being a big fan, and he seemed pretty skeptical of their merits (without really discussing alternatives).

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    3. I'm not sure that Alan and I agree on the dem theory stuff at all.

      I don't read him as much as anti-primary as pointing out that the long-term effects of primaries was destructive to 19th century primaries. Which I think is mostly fair -- although he thinks they were a logical adaptation at the time.

      Let's see...I guess I'm very much a fan of parties choosing their own nominees; I think that primary elections have more or less been an adequate way of doing that in the last thirty years. I think they're a lot better than dumping the job onto state conventions in states in which the formal party structure isn't really a major component of the overall party.

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    4. I read the book a while ago, but I recall a section where he went into detail about an anti-direct-primary advocate from...Cleveland, maybe, and said that his critiques were prescient, and ignored by the "reform" crowd. And I also recall that he tended to focus on what he depicted as the short-sighted and cynical motivations of the people who enacted the direct primary state by state.

      To be clear, I liked the book, I just got the sense that I probably didn't agree with him on the theory either (or, at least, I wished he would articulate his theoretical criticisms more directly, so that I could evaluate them).

      I don't have a problem with primary elections either, but I'd be interested to know more about the systematic consequences, if any, of having conventions over primaries, or whatever. (Honestly, I don't even know how nominations work in other democracies!)

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  9. These changes sound like improvements to me. The two party system is too strong as it is.

    The primary change allows a popular third party or independent equal access to the ballot in the primary and in the general election without having the "spoiler" problem. If a party wants its own nominee, have a convention in advance of the primary and choose the person there. If people are unhappy with the party's choice, they still have time to gather around an insurgent who can try to get into the general. It's not a perfect system, but neither is the current system.

    And when it comes to redistricting, shaking up the spoil system where some (or all) pols getting safe districts has to be good. Why would we want politicians to be able to draw lines that make themselves invincible and unaccountable? However, I wonder what criteria are used to draw the district lines if it's not for the incumbents.

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    1. If you're curious about the CA commission's process, they have extensive meeting transcripts and explanations available on their website:

      http://wedrawthelines.ca.gov/

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    2. Thanks so much. I found the criteria right in the FAQ. Gotta love the web.

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    3. MP,

      I think the answer most poli sci types would give is that our electoral system (i.e. geographical districts with winner take all elections) pretty much guarantees a two-party polity. Therefore you want parties that are permeable, responsive, and responsible, but also very strong so that they can be efficient and effective. Our present problem, I think the argument would go, is not that the parties are too strong, but that the constitutional system allows a party to behave on a blatantly irresponsible fashion and not be punished. Most of the argument for a move toward parliamentary practices is an attempt to force responsibility on the parties. Any move to weaken the parties would require a move to proportional representation or other major constitutional changes.

      This is the root of the arguments over whether there is something deeply flawed about the American constitution. That is it almost insures a two party regime but allows the parties to behave badly and escape punishment. Thus, like the constitution of Weimar, it contains within it the suicide of the nation (albeit for different reasons). I am not up on all the arguments, but I think that is the gist.

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  10. I don't think each of the two major parties should be guaranteed a place on the final ballot. A party could "control its nomination" by not running three candidates against each other, for example. If the party structure can stop people running for President before they even toss their hats in the ring, it wouldn't be able to do this?

    Alternatively, we could run primaries using the single transferable vote (a pipe dream, I expect).

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