Primaries: What to watch for in VA, SC, ME

CNN's Chris Cillizza on what to watch in the June 12 primaries, including familiar names in Virginia and South Carolina, and a voting experiment in Maine.

Posted: Jun 13, 2018 6:51 PM
Updated: Jun 13, 2018 6:51 PM

Voters in California will have the opportunity in November to say the state should be carved up into three parts.

Three Californias is the ballot initiative pipe dream of a Golden State venture capitalist. Congress, however, will never sign on.

But ...

It's worth noting the frustration in a supernova of a state dwarfing all 49 others by population and economic output but only represented by the same number of senators as Delaware and Wyoming, which have a combined population that is less than half that of Los Angeles.

Californians (along with, to varying degrees, Louisiana, Nebraska and Washington) already have their jungle primary system, which denudes political parties from a guaranteed spot on the ballot in November. There wasn't a Republican available on the ballot for a statewide Senate race in November 2016 and there won't be this year, either.

But Democrats had to scramble before primaries when crowded fields of candidates threatened to split the vote and keep them off the ballot in some congressional districts they think they can win.

In Maine, they're frustrated with the political system too, though for a different reason. Independent candidates run strong in Maine, which can lead to three-way races and victors with much less than a majority.

In primaries Tuesday, Maine became the first state to use a ranked choice system at the statewide level. Not only that, they rejected state lawmakers' attempt to delay the experiment until 2021.

That means Maine will use the ranked system in the general election in November, despite court challenges and the Republican governor, Paul LePage, telling local TV station WCSH he would "probably not" certify the results. It's not clear he needs to, so that could be a symbolic rejection of the system voters in the state want.

The ranking system is more complicated than simply pulling the lever for the candidate of your choice. Instead, when there is more than one candidate on the ballot, voters rank them (1,2,3 ...) from top to bottom. A voter's top-ranked candidate is their choice on the first round of counting. If no candidate gets a majority, the last-place candidate is dropped and ballots are counted again, with first-round votes that had gone to the bottom candidate now going to the voter's second choice. The system is in place in a number of cities, but Maine is the first state to use it. Some candidates, such as Jean Quan, a former Oakland mayor, campaigned to be a second-choice candidate and ended up mayor after the 2010 election.

LePage, the bellicose governor, isn't able to run for re-election, but he might be particularly sensitive to a ranked system since he was first elected to office in a three-way race 2010 with less than 38% of the vote and in 2014 with less than a majority. A ranked format could have yielded a very different outcome and it was in response to LePage that the system was hatched.

The federal system is the most intricate of all, with its reliance on the Electoral College to select the US President, and it would be the hardest to change. It's because of that system that two of the last three US Presidents -- George W. Bush and Donald Trump -- were elected with fewer popular votes than their opponent.

Bill Clinton won more votes than his two main opponents in his first presidential election, but with just 43% of the popular vote, he was far short of a majority. In that case, Ross Perot is thought by some to have played the spoiler.

This sets up the current contradictions of US politics -- Americans think American democracy works, but they also, largely, think it needs systemic changes.

Here's a passage from Pew's write-up in April of its poll on democracy and the public:

While a majority of Americans say democracy in this country is working well, about six-in-ten (61%) say significant changes to the fundamental design and structure of government are needed to make it work for current times; 38% say the design and structure of government serves the country well and does not need significant changes.

By roughly two-to-one (68% to 31%), Democrats say significant changes are needed, while Republicans are divided (50% to 49%) over whether or not extensive changes are needed.

It's a long way from California's jungle primary and an unlikely ballot initiative to carve up the state or Maine's ranked election experiment to fundamental government reform. But it certainly feels like there's interest in changing things up a bit.

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