In statewide debut, top-two primary blocks third parties from June ballot
California’s top-two election system –by its very design– excludes third parties from the general election ballot. But, as the law makes its debut in statewide races, minor parties say it’s undermining their ability to even field candidates for the June primary ballot.
“I had planned to run for Secretary of State, but I did not because I could not afford the filing fee,” said C. T. Weber, a member of the Peace and Freedom Party of California’s State Executive Committee. “As a result of Top Two and its implementing legislation, I could no longer get the signatures in lieu of filing fees.”
This year, the Peace and Freedom Party only has the resources to get a few candidates on the ballot. They aren’t alone in their struggle. All of California’s “third parties” are battling new ballot qualification procedures established with the Top Two primary, and they say that it’s a fight for their very survival.
Proposition 14’s False Promise: More Participation and Increased Options in the Primary
Approved by voters four years ago, Proposition 14 ditched the traditional party primary system, where the winner of each party primary appears on the general election ballot. Under Top Two, all candidates appear on a single primary ballot. Then, only the top two vote-getters advance to the November general election, regardless of party.
According to the official ballot title and summary, Proposition 14 was written to “encourage increased participation in elections” and “give voters increased options in the primary.” The measure has had the opposite effect, making it harder and more expensive for minor party candidates to qualify for the primary election ballot. That’s because, under the new system, minor party candidates must collect a substantially higher number of signatures or pay a sizable filing fee.
Under the old system, statewide candidates could submit 150 signatures from registered party members in-lieu of a filing fee. Now, the signature-in lieu threshold for small parties has jumped from 150 party members to 10,000 signatures from all voters, a 66-fold increase.
Minor party candidates, who couldn’t afford the filing fee, now are unable to pursue the signature in-lieu route, leading to fewer candidates and, in turn, fewer choices for voters.
“I don’t believe voters would have approved of Proposition 14 had they been told about its negative impacts upon our democracy,” said Feinstein, a former mayor of Santa Monica. “This increase is having a chilling effect on democracy in California.”
Some Green Party members add that voters were hoodwinked by a misleading Prop. 14 campaign.
“California’s voters were effectively hoodwinked when they passed Proposition 14 without knowing the facts,” writes Christopher Kavanagh, a member of the Green Party of Alameda County. “Even Russia allows qualified political parties to field candidates without obstructing their access to the ballot. This situation is both shameful and brazenly anti-democratic.”
Filing Fees Prohibitive to Minor Parties
Few if any statewide candidate will qualify for the ballot by collecting 10,000 signatures. Alternatively, they can pay a filing fee, which ranges from $2,600 to $3,500. The fee is fixed by state law at “two percent of the first-year salary” of state officeholders and “one percent of the first-year salary” for members of Congress, the Board of Equalization, State Senate and State Assembly.
Minor parties say that high filing fee is forcing them to pick and choose statewide candidates. For the June 2014 primary, it will cost parties $235,000 to field a candidate for every state and federal office. Last year, the Green Party of California raised $14,153, according to its most recent campaign finance report.
Feinstein says that fundraising has improved and the party now has about $40,000 in the bank. Nevertheless, at its current fundraising pace, it’d take the Green Party of California more than 16 years to raise enough money to pay the filing fee for all of its candidates in a single election cycle.
Again, that’s just to get their candidates on the ballot and doesn’t include the cost of an actual campaign. To include a ballot statement in the California Voter Guide, it costs candidates $25 per word, or $6,250 for a full 250 word statement. Most minor party candidates cannot afford a full ballot statement, especially with the new, more expensive filing fee.
“Because of this unreasonable deterrent, the public is robbed of basic information they are entitled to, about the candidates that are able to be on the ballot,” Feinstein said. “This tilts the system in favor of those with money, at the expense of the public’s right to know.”
Top 2: From Bad to Worse for Small Parties
For the state’s long-standing smaller parties, the Top Two has taken things from bad to worse. Since 1992, small parties have averaged a combined 133 candidates on the ballot in California. In 2012, they cumulatively only ran 21 candidates, the lowest minor party total since 1966 – when no minor parties were on the ballot.
To add insult to injury, the legislature eliminated general election write-in candidates as part of its Top Two implementation, a right Californians have enjoyed since statehood in 1850.
The new system makes it impossible for a candidate like Weber, who wants to campaign on the issue of money in politics, from getting on the ballot.
“Currently, our election system gives the illusion of democracy but election laws, money and the corporate media stands in the way of fair representation for all of serious convictions,” Weber said. “Our elections are rigged, legally rigged.”
Vicious Cycle: No Candidates, No Ballot Statement, No Voters, No Donors
It all leads to a vicious cycle for minor parties. Without statewide candidates or ballot statements, minor parties can’t attract voters. Without voters, they can’t attract donors. Without money, the parties are back at the start: they can’t run statewide candidates.
In just a few years, this cycle will make it harder for small parties to remain in existence. In California, there are two ways for parties to retain their ballot status. The first is to receive two percent of the vote in the general election for a statewide office, which is de facto ended by top-two. In 2012, no Green Party, Libertarian Party or American Independent Party candidate qualified for the November ballot. Three Peace and Freedom candidate made it to the general election, all of whom ran as write-in candidates in the primary.*
The other option for parties to remain in existence is to meet a voter registration test, equal to one percent of the number of people who voted for governor in the last general election. This threshold has been difficult for the smaller parties to consistently maintain. The Greens, Libertarians and Peace and Freedom are all in danger of falling off the ballot because of it by 2015.
Non-partisan cooperation against Top 2
Proponents of the Proposition 14 promised that it would increase cooperation.
“Non-partisan measures like Proposition 14 will push our elected officials to begin working together for the common good,” Prop. 14 proponents wrote in the official ballot argument for the measure. “It’s time to end the bickering and gridlock and fix the system.”
It has: The Green Party, Libertarian Party and Peace and Freedom Party have joined forces in Rubin vs. Bowen, a lawsuit seeking to overturn Top Two. They’ve also prepared a joint position paper on the problems facing small parties. Then again, minor parties have been working together for decades.
“It is very common for all the minor parties to work together on common election law problems,” said Richard Winger, a spokesman for the Libertarian Party of California and publisher of Ballot Access News, which tracks ballot access developments across the United States.
“We smaller parties are on the short end of democracy in California,” said Feinstein. “Instead of being treated as unfortunate yet unavoidable road kill from the Top Two, we should be seen as canaries in the coal mine, warning of the deeply unrepresentative and undemocratic nature of our electoral system.”
Note: An earlier version of this story contained an error about the number of Peace and Freedom candidates in the 2012 general election. In 2012, there were 3 Peace and Freedom candidates on the general election ballot, not one as an earlier version of this story stated.