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First elections to be held under "Top Two" open primary

by Damon Eris, published

Two special elections for State Senate scheduled on February 15th will be the first to be held under California’s “top two” open primary, and at least one candidate is running in protest of the new system.

The Top Two Primaries Act, which was passed by voter referendum in June of last year as Proposition 14, is just one of the hundreds of new laws that came into effect in California on New Year’s Day.  Under the “top two” system, all candidates for a given office, regardless of party affiliation or lack thereof, participate in a single primary election open to all registered voters, also regardless of party affiliation or lack thereof.  The two candidates who receive the most votes in the primary then move on to the general election, from which all other candidates are excluded. 

Opponents of Proposition 14 sought an injunction to block implementation of the law on the basis of the claim that it discriminates against minor party candidates and voters who cast ballots for write-in candidates.  However, in December, the California Supreme Court refused to issue an injunction on the matter.  The suit will continue to make its way through the courts and others are likely to be filed in the coming months. 

In the meantime, two special primary elections for State Senate districts 17 and 28 have been scheduled for February 15th, and will be the first to be held under the new system in California.  There is one caveat, however.  The Secretary of State’s Office has announced that if one candidate in either of these elections receives a majority of the vote (50% +1), no special general election will be held for the seat. 

According to the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder’s Office, while just two candidates filed nomination papers for the race in the 17th district, a Republican and a Democrat, there are ten candidates vying in the primary for the 28th district seat, one of whom is running in protest of  Proposition 14. 

The seat in the 17th district opened up when the previous office holder, Republican Sen. George Runner, was elected to the State Board of Equalization in November 2010.  His wife, Sharron Runner, a Republican and small business owner, is now one of the two candidates in the race.  She will be faced by Democrat Darren Parker, a community activist and consultant.

The special election in the 28th district was called when the previous office holder, Sen. Jenny Oropeza, was posthumously re-elected by voters, after having passed away less than two weeks before the November election.  Among the ten candidates who filed nomination papers for the office, there are four Republicans, three Democrats, two Non-Partisan candidates and one Libertarian.  The two non-partisan candidates are Mark Lipman, a publisher and community organizer, and Michael Chamness, a community activist from Venice, CA. 

It turns out, however, that Chamness is not non-partisan by choice.  Rather, he is a member of the Coffee Party, a liberal group formed in response to the Tea Party movement, which is not officially recognized by the state.  Under Proposition 14, his affiliation cannot therefore be listed alongside his name on the primary ballot.  Chamness joined the plaintiffs of the above-mentioned lawsuit against implementation of Proposition 14 in an appeal filed last November, according to a press release at Business and Election Law, the website of Gautam Dutta, who is representing the plaintiffs in the case.  The release states:

     “Unless the state’s High Court intervenes, Mr. Chamness will be banned from identifying himself as a “Coffee Party” candidate on the ballot.  Instead, he will be forced to falsely state that he has “No Party Preference.””  As quoted by The Daily Breeze, Chamness appears to have decided to run for the seat at least partially in protest of Proposition 14, which he said “disenfranchises third-party candidates.” 

Nontheless, with name recognition and prior experience in the state legislature, Democrat Ted Lieu, a former Assemblyman and candidate for Attorney General, appears to be the candidate most-favored to win the race.  Yet, given the fact that this is both a special election and the first multi-candidate race in the state under “top two,” it is not known how voters will respond to the multiplicity of candidates on the ballot, or even if they will come out to vote in the special election in significant numbers.  Though nearly 50% of registered voters in the district are Democrats, it is entirely possible that their vote may be split between the numerous Democratic and progressive candidates on the ballot.  The remainder of the district’s electorate, on the other hand, is split between the Republicans (25%), Decline-to-State voters (22%), and third party members (around 5%).  With four candidates on the ballot, and only one in four voters in the district, the odds are certainly not in the GOP’s favor. 

Unless one candidate wins the primary outright, we are likely to see a special general election with two Democrats this summer.  But there is always the question of the independent protest vote.