Voices & Choices

How California Incumbents Fare under Top-Two Voting

How California Incumbents Fare under Top-Two Voting

Note: As more ballots are counted in California, some results are changing. When the count is completed in July, we will update this post.

Every election cycle one of the most notable types of results is an incumbent candidate losing their seat, especially when that candidate loses in a primary. Of course, it doesn’t happen very often in our congressional primaries. In fact, only three have lost this year so far: North Carolina Republican Congresswoman Renee Ellmers, who was redistricted into a district where she had to run against another Republican incumbent in the primary (so one of them had to lose), Pennsylvania Democrat Chaka Fattah, who is under indictment, and Virginia Republican Randy Forbes who was redistricted so that only a small segment of his old district comprised the new one he was competing in. The rest survived and now mostly face weak challengers in November from candidates representing the minority parties in their district.

The results of California’s June 7th primary has every single incumbent candidate seeking reelection to the US House and California State Legislature advancing to the November general election. The same was true in primary elections in 2014 and 2012, 2012 being the first the state used the top-two voting system. But there’s a kicker for incumbents as well--the type of challenge that close primary victories used to end now carry into the general election.

Confirming the public’s satisfaction with the job performance of its elected officials is always a good thing. That said, the fact that in 459 races (spanning three election cycles) an incumbent never lost in a primary might suggest a system that makes it nearly impossible for incumbents to lose. In the three election cycles prior to the adoption of top-two, a very small number of incumbents did lose in primaries, potentially suggesting that the new system further helps incumbents advance to the November ballot. An incumbent is far more often than not representing a district where the partisan balance is in their favor. That means that, if each party roughly split its share of the vote, the incumbent might well advance even if the challenger of their party got more votes.

This phenomenon existed in the 17th district this year where incumbent Democrat Rep. Mike Honda faces a strong challenge from Democrat Ro Khanna in part due to Khanna’s strong run in 2014 and accusations of ethics violations against Honda. Honda received fewer votes than Khanna but advanced to the general election nevertheless because the partisan balance of the district meant that no Republican came close.

But Honda is obviously not safe from defeat in the fall, as he always was in the era before Top Two due to representing heavily Democratic districts. The flip side of Top Two is that while incumbents may more easily survive the primary, they also now have the potential to face new challenges in November. That indeed has led to some incumbent defeats in California that never would have happened under its old system. In 2012, for example, non-incumbent challengers defeated incumbents of their same party in 2 congressional districts -- one example being former FairVote intern Eric Swalwell, who defeated long-time Democratic incumbent Pete Stark. There were several such examples in state legislative races as well.

Top Four with ranked choice voting could improve the current system regarding the issue of incumbent accountability. A top-four system using ranked choice voting in the general election--a system under which four candidates would appear on the November ballot and then would be ranked by voters according to their preference--would make it even more likely that incumbents would always reach the general election ballot. But it also would more certainly guarantee the incumbent would have to demonstrate to general election voters the ability to withstand challenges from within the incumbent’s party as well as other parties because all substantial views in the district would have a candidate who represented them in the general election. In the case of the 17th district, every voter in the district would be able to more fully weigh in because republicans would be able to electorally express their potential reservations with Rep. Honda while being able to select a Republican as their first choice, and if Rep. Honda would then retain his seat, it would have been more perfectly expressing the will of the voters in that district.

Image Source: Ro Khanna for Congress


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