The ballot is a lonely place for third party candidates in California come November. Of all the formerly partisan races in Orange County this year, only the Libertarian Party’s Autumn Browne made it to a voter-nominated “top-two” contest against incumbent Democrat Tom Daly for the 69th Assembly District. Even that counted as an achievement in itself with the state’s so-called “jungle primary” changing the political landscape this decade.
Back in 2010, voters approved Prop. 14 by a 54-46 percent margin. The ballot initiative turned the June primary into a single ballot nonpartisan free-for-all where only the “top-two” candidates advance. At the time, supporters sold the reform as one that would lead to more moderates in Sacramento. Others saw it as a blatant power grab. Third parties, already having faced significant obstacles to electoral victory, have been severely disadvantaged since the switch.
Seeing the writing on the wall, the Libertarian Party opposed the ballot initiative before voters passed it in 2010. “We think that it takes away choice from the voters,” says George Reis, secretary of the Libertarian Party’s Orange County chapter. “Secondarily, we believe that political parties should choose their own methods for nominating candidates. Choosing who the candidate in the November election is going to be is something each party should be able to determine and then voters should be given the choice between all of the candidates.”
This year, the top-two primary led to a few November races that pitted Democrats against each other. Kevin De Leon faced off against Dianne Feinstein for United States Senate. The battle for Lieutenant Governor also became an all Democrat affair as did the contest for State Superintendent of Public Instruction. In OC, congressional and state senate races featured “top-two” Democrats and Republicans squaring off against each other. The same was true of the county’s state assembly races, except for one.
Without a declared challenger from any party, Tom Daly’s 69th assembly district reelection campaign appeared to be an anomaly, one the Libertarian Party saw an opportunity in. They took advantage of the OC Registrar of Voters’ additional window of time for write-in candidates in such races. Browne volunteered to run on behalf of the Libertarian Party in June and found herself to be the only write-in candidate vying for the November ballot. She earned 81 votes in advancing.
“That was the first time, historically, that we’ve managed to do that since that primary method has been in place,” says Reis, who ran in a three-way race for the 69th District in 2004. “In essence, if Browne just voted for herself, she would, by default, make it into the top-two the November. It’s not the ideal way for any party to get a candidate on the ballot because it depends on circumstances just lining up perfectly. For any campaign for partisan office, to have only one candidate declare is an incredibly unusual event.”
A drama teacher at Brookhust Junior High School in Anaheim, Browne is the daughter of past Libertarian Party presidential candidate Harry Browne. She ran on the party’s ideological platform of limited government and earned 25 percent of the vote in November.
Statewide, the Libertarian Party could count the number of candidates in voter-nominated races it got on the November ballot on one hand. As limited as that sounds, the performance is one that Reis called “luckier than usual” thanks to rather unusual circumstances, like Browne’s. They almost fielded a congressional candidate in Los Angeles County’s 34th district, but the Green Party’s Kenneth Mejia advanced to the November election only to lose to Democrat incumbent Jimmy Gomez.
Locally, the Green Party of Orange County wasn’t so lucky in voter-nominated races with no qualifying candidates even for the June primary.
“I do think that people have gotten used to the top-two primary, especially younger voters” Reis says. “But at the same time, in the state of California, decline to state is now the second largest group. It shows that at least a third of the voters are looking for alternatives.” The only problem is such voters aren’t casting ballots for third parties, especially come November. Former Republican Steve Poizner ran for his old seat as insurance commissioner as an independent, but narrowly lost the historic opportunity to become the first no party preference candidate to win statewide office.
A new ballot initiative could change the jungle primary in a myriad of ways whether by reverting to the old open system or adopting proportional representation. A lawsuit is another option but plaintiffs don’t appear to be on the horizon. Until then, the top-two system remains the law of the land and third parties do what they can.
“Browne did great given the circumstances,” Reis says. “That was a campaign that had no money. She didn’t get opportunities to debate Daly. In spite of all of that, she got over 20,000 votes.”
Gabriel San Román is from Anacrime. He’s a journalist, subversive historian and the tallest Mexican in OC. He also once stood falsely accused of writing articles on Turkish politics in exchange for free food from DönerG’s!