Jungle Primaries

Cindy Hill

Despite an obsessive deification of partisan elections, the U.S. has spawned some odd variations thereof. Some of these, like the ‘jungle primary’ or nonpartisan blanket primary have taken off despite the absurd incongruities they produce. Others, like Instant Runoff Voting, seem designed to favor more meaningful electoral participation and results including increased third-party participation, but have been rejected –or squashed–each time they raise their hopeful heads.

The jungle primary is less a primary than a first round of a free-for-all. In a nutshell, everyone runs, and the top two candidates — even if they are from the same party — go on to a winner-takes-all second round. In some jurisdictions, if one candidate manages a numerical majority in the initial primary, that ends the contest. The jungle primary is used in Louisiana and was used in Washington, Alaska and California until their version was declared unconstitutional. Then in 2010 California adopted a new version that has not yet been struck down.

Many European elections, with their multiplicity of small parties, resemble jungle primaries. Although their small parties tend to float one candidate apiece in the first-round elections, second-round elections often result in two quite similar candidates pitted against one another. The ongoing election in Egypt demonstrates this problem. Without time to develop meaningful parties and build effective coalitions, two candidates with similar conservative, religious, counter-revolutionary views wound up moving on to the final election despite the majority of the votes cast in round one going to liberal pro-revolution candidates.

Imagine if you will a California primary in which the Democrats, Democratic-Socialists, Liberal and Progressive parties run two dozen candidate and the Republicans and Conservatives each run one.  You’d wind up with the second-round determinative election being between the Republican and the Conservative even if 85% of the votes cast in the primary were divided amidst the left-wing parties.

Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) helps to cure this skewing and encourage third party candidacies by allowing voters to rank candidates in their order of preference. This is closer to how most groups of friends choose which movie to go to on Saturday night–not everyone will get their top pick, but most people will get something they can live with. IRV first appeared for statewide primaries in several states in 1912, then vanished, then has reappeared off and on mainly in conjunction with municipal elections for the last fifty years. IRV does away with the ‘spoiler’ effect — for example, in Burlington, Vermont, IRV allowed voters to vote for Progressive Party Mayor Bob Kiss, while ranking the Democratic Party contender second, thus not being accused of supporting the Republican candidate by splitting the left-side vote. It worked so well that the Progressive was elected mayor, at which point the powers-that-be rebelled and repealed IRV.

After both the California jungle primaries and the Egyptian elections, victory will be declared for American-style democracy simply because elections were held and someone eventually emerged as a winner. But I’m left wondering whether the substance of democratic values are as absent as reality from a reality tv show.


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