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    California’s Top Two primary system denies voters a real choice
    • October 21, 2023

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    Will California voters get a choice between parties for the U.S. Senate election on Nov. 5, 2024? They didn’t in two of the last three Senate elections, when it was only Democrats on the ballots.

    In 2018 the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein survived a challenge by Los Angeles Councilmember Kevin DeLeon, recently disgraced from racist comments at a meeting. In 2016, it was Attorney General Kamala Harris, now the vice president, defeating Rep. Loretta Sanchez. 

    The culprit is one of the worst initiatives ever, the Top Two system instituted when voters passed Proposition 14 in 2010. Under it, a “jungle primary” is held in a battle of all against all. Then the top two, regardless of party, or no party, rise to the November runoff.

    Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, hoodwinked voters into thinking it would advance “moderates” like him from both parties. As recently as 2017, Politico reported he was stirring “buzz” he might run for the Senate in 2018. He didn’t.

    But instead of moderation, Top Two gave us only liberal Democrats in those two races. And although the California GOP certainly has wounded itself often enough, not having candidates in these crucial, statewide races of national import kept it out of the public eye.

    With global and domestic crises boiling over, next year’s race is vital. Ballotpedia currently lists 37 hopefuls for the job. They include 16 Democrats, the top ones being Reps. Adam Schiff, Katie Porter and Barbara Lee. And 13 Republicans, the two most prominent being Eric Early, an attorney, and Steve Garvey, whose website so far largely features pictures of him during his Dodgers playing career.

    Then there’s Sen. Laphonza Butler, whom Gov. Gavin Newsom appointed to complete the remainder of Feinstein’s term. Butler has until Dec. 8 to decide if she runs in the primary. My guess is she well. The Senate is the world’s most exclusive club after the College of Cardinals in Rome.

    So far, the top three Democrats have engaged in two debates and, most recently on Oct. 15, the AFSCME California PEOPLE Forum at Loews Coronado Bay Resort. Their views weren’t all that different.

    I wondered if future debates would include any Republicans. Calls and emails to all three Democratic campaigns were not answered. Someone from the California Democratic Party got back to me and said she would check, then crickets. Garvey’s campaign also didn’t get back to me.

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    Early quickly replied to my call to his campaign. “They won’t invite me for whatever reason, and it’s not good because I absolutely should be part of these debates,” he told me, as his chihuahua chirped in the background. “You know they’re in dreamland the other side. They are just approaching it and their media allies are approaching it as if, oh, it’s just an automatic Democrats are going to win the Senate.” He said denying him and other Republicans places on stage is “to try and skew it so only two Democrats remain on the top. But I have a very good chance of ending up in the top two.”

    Fred Whitaker is the chairman of the Orange County Republican Party. “I like the idea of a debate,” he told me. “We are working with all the Senate candidates to see if they are willing to come to Orange County to speak to the Central Committee.” Of that, Early said, “Absolutely I’ll be there.”

    Finally, Republicans should make passing an initiative repealing Top Two their top priority. It clearly is hurting them, making it harder to get out their message. They still can do it for the Nov. 5, 2024 election as the signature filing deadline is next June 27. Call it the Restore California Democracy initiative.

    Top Two is a wound in democracy and needs to be repealed. If Republicans don’t do that quickly, they might as well all move to Florida.

    John Seiler is on the SCNG Editorial Board and blogs at:  

    ​ Orange County Register