California Keeps Repeating Its Own Election Lie

Spring Elections Aren’t Primaries. Let’s Stop Calling Them That

Since 2010, California’s “primary” elections have actually been general elections, where voters have more choice and power than with November’s ballots, writes columnist Joe Mathews. From left to right: U.S. Senate candidates Barbara Lee, Adam Schiff, Katie Porter, and Steve Garvey at a January 22, 2024 debate in Los Angeles. Courtesy of AP Newsroom.

My fellow Californians, your government is lying to you. Without conscience or remorse. About two very important subjects: democracy and elections.

The lie is not new. It is 14 years old. And in our polarized era, it is a bipartisan falsehood—parroted by both political parties and defended by media of all types—including, perhaps, the newspaper or website where you are reading this column.

The lie is not hidden. The state uses your tax money to publish it in the voter guide and ballots it sends you.

So, what is this lie?

It’s that the spring state elections you participate in—like the one scheduled for March 5—are primaries.

“Primaries” are elections in which voters belonging to a particular party select the candidate who will stand for that party in a general election. The truth is California no longer has elections like that for either state elected offices or Congressional representatives. I know because I was there when 54% of California voters chose to eliminate such contests in June 2010, by voting to approve Proposition 14.

But no one ever got rid of the name “primary.”

Prop. 14’s official name was the “Top Two Candidates Open Primary Act.” But what it did was eliminate the primary and establish in its place a two-round, “top-two” system.

In California’s top-two, the first election of the year is the opposite of a primary. It’s a general election, in which candidates of every party are on the ballot together.

That means that California’s fall election—in which the two top finishers from the “primaries” face off—is also mislabeled now. We call it a general election. But it’s actually a run-off election between the top two candidates from the spring elections.

This confusion, like so much in California’s crazy-quilt political system, is the fault of well-intentioned good government types. Reformers spent decades trying to make politics less partisan by eliminating primaries. But they often still referred to their proposals as “primaries,” because the term was familiar and court-tested.

You might think this is a meaningless matter of nomenclature—a small-time fraud, like the grocery stores that sell shrimp that isn’t really shrimp or call sparkling wine “Champagne.” But you’d be wrong. The “primary” lie suppresses turnout when it matters most: in the March elections.

Let’s resolve to take The Big One seriously. If more Californians showed up at the polls on March 5, more Californians would get to winnow down the top two who make November’s runoff.

Voters usually focus on November, when the whole country goes out to the polls. But California voters have more choices and power in the March election when their ballots have the widest variety of candidates.

For that reason, March is the election voters should prioritize. But they don’t. California’s turnout patterns are the same as they were before we eliminated primaries. In 2022, only 27% of eligible Californians cast ballots in the spring election, as opposed to 41% in November 2022. In 2020’s presidential election year, the figures were 38% for spring, and just shy of 71% for November.

That made sense before 2010, but it doesn’t anymore.

If you’re a California voter, and you didn’t know any of this, don’t blame yourself. No one ever made it clear. There’s been no real educational effort to explain this changed reality or to get Californians out to the polls for the more important spring election. Election officials, media, candidates—the whole world, really—still call the first election “the primary,” and treat it as if it’s a warm-up to November, rather than the main event.

That’s hypocrisy. This state’s leaders and media routinely rail against misinformation in the democratic process even as they repeat this basic and damaging “primary” misinformation every election year. They run their campaigns and sell their subscriptions as defenders of democracy, but their inability to correctly label elections means that people don’t understand the real stakes, and perils, of the top-two system.

For more than a decade, I’ve been a lonely voice asking our leaders to correct themselves, and label elections accurately. I’ve talked with state officials and media, including members of the Los Angeles Times and New York Times mastheads. I’ve suggested alternatives to the “primary” label. I prefer “general” but would be happy with “first round” or “the main event” or “The Big One.”

I’ve gotten nowhere.

Some people simply don’t see the problem. Some acknowledge the error but say their hands are tied—because Prop. 14 and state documents have called the spring election a “primary,” they need to call it that too. Others say it would just confuse the public to correct the record now.

But we shouldn’t give up.

So this year, let’s resolve to take The Big One seriously. If more Californians showed up at the polls on March 5, more Californians would get to winnow down the top two who make November’s runoff. With more voters, we’d get more representative verdicts on everything from our next U.S. Senator to whether we want to change California’s mental health policies, as Prop. 1 proposes.

This year’s spring contest provides an unusually promising opportunity to address the labeling problem. Because this March there is a real primary on the ballot—the presidential primary. Prop. 14 didn’t abolish contests among Democrats to nominate a Democratic presidential candidate, or among Republicans to nominate a Republican.

That makes this year’s ballot a mix—a true presidential primary alongside our statewide general election, in which Californians can choose from multi-party lists of candidates for the state legislature, the House of Representatives, and the U.S. Senate. Since this election is both a primary and a general, state leaders could use the ballot to explain the distinction to the public.

Donald Trump is all but certain to win California’s GOP presidential primary. His campaign is based on an election lie—that he won the 2020 contest. California media and Democratic politicians will rightfully condemn him for that in the weeks ahead.

The problem is, they have their own record of lying about our elections. Sure, their lie isn’t as fascist or as dangerous to the republic as Trump’s election denialism. But it is a lie nonetheless. Right now would be a wonderful moment to admit error and fix this election’s label.


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