Congressman Duncan Hunter was easily projected to win re-election this year in California’s 50th Congressional District. The district itself is almost 60 percent Republican, and the only other candidate on the general election ballot would be Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar. However, a sudden high profile scandal including indictment for allegedly spending thousands of campaign dollars on personal expenses, including family vacations, personal meals, and gifts for friends and family has cast doubt on his re-election chances.
To add insult to injury, the indictment also quotes Hunter - himself a veteran and representing a San Diego area district - as saying “Tell the Navy to go f--- themselves.” Though Hunter could very well still win, the situation has caused some doubt in an election year where Republicans will want to hold every seat that they can.
Hunter maintains his innocence, but under the circumstances, Republicans in California would probably prefer that Hunter resign and be replaced on the ballot with another Republican. However, under California’s top two system, that would be impossible even if Hunter were willing. In fact, Hunter would remain on the ballot under California law, even if he died.
And worse - California does not provide its voters with a write-in line.
When considering an overhaul to a state’s election methods, how it handles death and scandal is usually not top of mind, but these details matter. The lack of a write-in option in California may mean a district that overwhelmingly favors Republican policy will be represented by a Democrat after this year.
When top two was on the ballot in Oregon, they considered a policy wherein the candidate in third place would appear on the ballot instead, one we noted could cause real issues - this year, there was a near-tie for third place between a Republican and Democrat in Hunter’s district, with the Republican leading by only seven votes in the final results.
The issue of new information in the lead-up to an election is where the write-in line really shows its utility. The only issue then becomes the preservation of majority rule - a write-in line effectively means a general election with three candidates, raising the possibility of a split vote resulting in the winner earning less than 50 percent of the vote. That’s why we have consistently argued that ranked choice voting is a critical piece of the puzzle when it comes to making the top two system better. With ranked choice voting, not only can a write-in line be easily accommodated, but there is no longer any need to restrict the general election to two candidates. The same primary election method could be used, but instead of advancing two candidates, California could advance four.
Had Hunter’s district used that system, voters would be able to choose among a field of two Democrats and two Republicans (including Hunter). That kind of intraparty competition would be massively boosted, there would be practically no instances of general elections with only one political parties’ candidates on the ballot, and independent and third party candidates would be far more likely to have a voice in the general election.
The situation this year in California’s 50th District highlights why primary election reform must always keep the general election in mind.