Replacing the jungle primary

(originally published November 20, edited November 25; see footnote)

I’m thrilled with the huge win for approval voting in Fargo, North Dakota, where voters overwhelmingly chose approval voting as their voting system for mayoral elections.

I’ve been jealous of Fargo since I learned of that effort. In our primaries here in California, we use a jungle primary to narrow down the field of candidates to the top two in our primary election in June (or rather, our primary in March), and then choose between them in November.

I’ve been mulling over an idea for replacing California’s jungle primary with an approval-based primary.  I think with the system I describe below, we can also replace our two-candidate general election with a approval-based system that occasionally offers a third choice, but I also offer an alternative that only replaces the jungle primary.

First, what is approval voting?  Approval voting differs from our current choose-only-one voting system by allowing voters to select as many candidates for a particular office as they wish; then the candidate with the highest approval rating wins the election.  The Center for Election Science has a great webpage describing approval voting (and ReformFargo.org is also a great website)

Assumptions

My assumptions:

  1. California’s jungle primary is ripe for reform
  2. Change-averse voters want typical two-candidate elections to
    include 1 Democrat, and 1 Republican, since that will seem most fair
    to them. Change-averse Democrats don’t mind when only 2 Democrats
    advance to the general, and change-averse Republicans don’t mind when only two Republicans advance to the general, but partisan voters hate when the opposite party advances two candidates.
  3. Many of those change-averse voters dislike the top-two primary,
    for reasons described in the LA Weekly article “State’s Top-Two Primary System Could Create Unintended Consequences on June 5
  4. Many voters prefer having two elections (a primary and a general)
    and dislike efforts to conflate public consideration of candidates
    into a single all-purpose election
  5. Many voters also don’t mind having a diversity of choices in the
    primary, and dislike onerous restrictions on ballot access for the primary.
  6. There are many voters who abstain from voting in the primary
    election, but vote in the general (which I’ll refer to as
    “general-only voters”), General-only voters appreciate having a
    simplified choice in the general election, and are frustrated by
    having too many non-viable options that haven’t been culled out.

My hunch: a ballot initiative mainly focused on fixing our primary election system is more likely to be successful than one that attempts to modify the
general election. That said, I think an electoral reform that allowed for three (or more) candidates to advance to the general election could be acceptable if it was rare (at least at first).

I think the following could be a viable an incremental reform.  I’ll dub this the “majority approval filter” or “MAF” which is an approval-based primary that would typically select two candidates to advance to the general election. 

Majority approval filter (MAF)

Majority approval filter uses the following steps:

  1. The candidate who receives the highest approval rating qualifies for the general election
    • Example: if there are 100 voters, and 40 approve of “A” and “B”, 30 approve of only “B”, and 30 approve of only “C”, then
      • “B” advances to the general election, since “B” is approved by 70% of voters.
  2. If less than 75% approve of the leading candidate, then a second candidate (the “complementary candidate”), who maximizes the approval of the electorate, also qualifies
    • Example: if there are 100 voters, and 40 approve of “A” and “B”, 30 approve of only “B”, and 30 approve of only “C”, then
      • “B” advances with 70% approval (per step 1)
      • “C” advances (per this step).  “B” satisfies 70% of the electorate, and “C” satisfies the other 30%.  So, 100% of the voters will be satisfied with one of their choices in the general election.
  3. All candidates who receive over 50% approval also qualify for the general election
    • Example: if there are 100 voters, and 50 approve of “A” and “B”, 20 approve of only “B”, and 30 approve of only “C”, then :
      • “B” advances with 70% approval (per step 1)
      • “C” advances, satisfying the other 30% of the electorate, making the total 100% (step 2)
      • “A” advances as well (having achieved 50% approval)

That step 3 is why I said “usually” instead of “always”.  In the current jungle primary system, it is exactly two candidates that advance to the general election.  With the majority approval filter, this third step makes it possible for a third candidate to advance, or for that matter, as many candidates that receive majority approval.  On the flip side, if over 75% approve of one candidate, and no other candidate receives approval from a majority of voters, then only one candidate advances.

Typical envisioned use

With a highly polarized electorate accustomed to two-party rule, it’s difficult to imagine even two out of three candidates in a crowded primary each receiving over 40% approval, let alone 50% approval.  That said, if it happens, then a majority of voters would clearly want both candidates in the general election.

What I suspect would be more typical in California (where Democrats dominate the political landscape) is that it would be typical for incumbent Democrats to get the highest approval rating. The voters that didn’t approve of the incumbent would probably be Republican.  Among those voters, the Republican that gets the most Democrats who don’t approve the incumbent to also approve them would get the most votes in step 2.

Maximum approval top-two (MATT)

Even though I believe the majority approval filter is the best reform, I’ll also proposed a truncated version, which I’ll call “maximum approval top-two” or “MATT”.  The system: use step 1 and 2 above.  Skip step 3.  The benefit: the general election can remain limited to exactly two candidates.  The candidate “A” with 50% approval in my third example above? Well, tough. MATT only has room for two candidates, and they already stated they would approve one of them.

I believe that “MAF” is superior to “MATT”, because it provides a clear goal to all candidates: get over 50% approval to get on the general election ballot.  As you can see from the examples above, a candidate who only gets 30% approval would also qualify for the ballot.  Few good politicians strive to be the 30% candidate, though. I would imagine that the first MATT election that eliminates a candidate who received over 50% approval would create an outrage and a demand to switch to MAF.

I provide MATT, though, as a truly incremental reform that could be exclusively focused on replacing the jungle primary. For MAF to be successful as a replacement for the jungle primary, we would also need to move to approval voting for the general election. Since MATT is guaranteed to produce no more than two candidates, we could continue to limp along with our vote-for-only-one general election system.

Complementary candidate threshold

That “75%” number for the complementary candidate threshold was picked pretty arbitrarily.  I believe that if the front-runner candidate gets over 75% approval, it’s ok not to present the other 25% of voters an alternative.  But really, that’s only a flimsy rationale. I needed to plug a loophole in my first draft of the system.  Imagine the front-runner gets 98% approval(!)  Great!  Election over, right?  Well, no, without that 75% threshold, we might still have to offer the candidate that the 2% that didn’t approve of the front-runner would approve instead.  That number could be 70%, or 66%, or 60%. I chose 75% so that I wouldn’t have to change my examples  🙂

History of MAF and MATT

I developed this method after growing to loathe California’s jungle primary, especially after Democrat Josh Harder nearly got knocked out of the jungle primary in the 2018 election in California’s District 10 (CA-10). I had been canvassing for him with Swing Left, and it would have been gut-wrenching to see two Republicans face off for that seat in November.

I put out a couple of calls on the election-methods mailing list as I was thinking through the problem. Specifically, I started these two discussions:

  • February 2018: [EM] Party-based top two with approval (March discussion thread) – this was back when I thought that it might be worthwhile to go back to the old days where people declared which party they were voting with. I came up with a complicated system that involved voting for both a candidate and a party, and letting the system pair up the candidates with the party.
  • July 2018: [EM] A simpler approval based way of replacing the CA jungle primary (July thread, August thread) – this is much closer to the current MAF/MATT proposal. Kristofer Munsterhjelm convinced me to make the system more explicitly and deliberately allow the theoretical winner of a single-round approval election explicitly advance.
  • October 2018: Center for Election Science Booth at Politicon.  This is where I vaguely described the idea to Kirsten Elliott and Caitlyn Alley Peña. They convinced me to stop obsessing about making a system which only two candidates advance. By October, things were going well in Fargo, and people were wonderfully receptive to approval voting. Explaining approval voting to a lot of people at the booth helped me knock some barnacles off my thinking.

That’s my long way of saying that this isn’t a new system per se, but consider this blog post the first “paper” I’ve written on the subject.

What’s next

Well, I don’t know.  I’m planning to talk to Aaron Hamlin about this when he’s in town to speak at Berkeley REACH on November 29.  For those of you in the Bay Area, I’d highly encourage you to meet me there to see his talk. Those of you who aren’t in the Bay Area (or maybe you just can’t make it), I’d encourage you to watch Aaron in a very recent interview by Matt Ward from The Disrupters.

I’d encourage you to join me on the Election Methods Mailing List, or on the /r/EndFPTP on reddit, or on the /r/EndFPTP Slack workspace, or help me refine this idea over on electowiki:

…and maybe join me at an Indivisible SF meeting to talk about how we fix our voting system.

Version history

  • 2018–11–25 — Update to clarify that MAF primaries would need to be coupled with a voting method capable of handling three or more candidates. Our vote-for-only-one “first past the post” system won’t work.
  • 2018–11–20 — First version published
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