Steve Garvey’s strange victory is a loss for election reform in California. Here’s the solution

(Gregory Bull/Associated Press)

Steve Garvey’s strange victory is a loss for election reform in California. Here’s the solution

Op-ed, Election 2024, California politics

Marcela Miranda-Caballero and David Daley

March 8, 2024

The Dodgers typically don’t get any intentional help from their archrivals, the Giants. But something strange just happened during the California primaries: Steve Garvey, former major and current Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, advanced to the general election, along with Democratic Rep. Adam B. Schiff, after being almost completely elevated by the other team. The former National League MVP’s long-shot bid for Senate benefited from an estimated $35 million in television ads from a surprising source: Schiff and his allies.

Why did the Burbank Democrat spend a small fortune boosting Garvey’s name recognition and blanketing the airwaves with ads touting the former first baseman’s conservative credentials? You could call it a squeeze play: Schiff wanted to keep his two closest Democratic competitors out of the fall race, and he succeeded. Garvey claimed the second-highest number of votes in the top two primaries, while Democratic Reps. Katie Porter of Irvine and Barbara Lee of Oakland finished third and fourth, putting them out of the race.

This is a classic example of a problem that could be solved by ranked-choice voting, a proven, nonpartisan reform that discourages this kind of gamesmanship and more accurately reflects what a majority of voters want.

Schiff’s deception was unfortunate but completely rational under the current system. In California’s unusual primary, each candidate runs in the same primary, and the top two vote-getters advance to the general election, regardless of party affiliation. Schiff seemed confident from the start of claiming one of the two spots, but he faced a potentially competitive race against a progressive Democrat like Porter or Lee in the fall.

So Schiff decided to try and pick an easier opponent. Democrats in California outnumber Republicans 2 to 1, and voters in the state haven’t sent a Republican to the Senate in 35 years.

Schiff’s benevolence deserves much of the credit for securing what has become an all-too-common feature of California’s general elections: a statewide contest in which a Democrat will likely defeat a sacrificial Republican rather than face real competition from within his own party. Garvey’s largely low-key campaign did not release its own television ads, and his campaign appearances were few and far between. The Republican spent just $1.4 million through mid-February, a tiny fraction of what Schiff and his allies spent on him.

Porter described the match as rigged due to Schiff’s tactics, but her allies carried out similar deceptions. They tried to elevate a more conservative Republican perennial candidate Eric Early as far more dangerous than Steve Garvey. Their clear hope was to take enough votes away from Garvey so that Porter could finish second.

Our politics don’t have to be so underhanded. It would be easy to end this deception and ensure that the candidates with the broadest and deepest support face each other in the fall.

Ranked-choice voting, whose renaissance began in the Bay Area and is rapidly spreading across the country, is the best tool for reflecting voters’ wishes in any race with more than two candidates. It allows voters to rank their chosen candidates first, second, third, etc., and allows for an immediate runoff: if no one receives a majority of the first-choice votes, the last-place candidate is eliminated and awarded their votes to the next choice of their supporters. , a process that is repeated until one candidate gets more than 50%. This eliminates spoiler candidates, wasted votes for eliminated candidates, winners with relatively small numbers, and duplicitous tactics such as Schiffs and Porters.

One option is for California to adopt a final four model, like the one used successfully in Alaska. Instead of advancing just two candidates from the primary, the state allows the top four to advance to the general election, which is then decided by ranked choice.

This allows multiple candidates with different ideological backgrounds to compete against each other within a party

each other

without splitting the field, which is especially important in an overwhelmingly blue state like California. It also ensures that both major parties have at least one candidate in the general election. That could have let Schiff, Garvey, Lee and Porter all make their case


ahead of a much larger and more representative electorate in November.

Voters, meanwhile, would be able to pick their actual favorite from a wide field, along with their second and subsequent choices, without fear of spoilers. The winner would be the candidate with the deepest and broadest support among all California voters. And the election would have had a very different atmosphere: Instead of ignoring his strongest Democratic opponents, Schiff would have had to compete to be their supporters’ second choice.

California has long been at the forefront of electoral reforms that produce fairer results, and the top two primaries were an important innovation. But there’s no reason to stop there.

Ranked-choice voting would make state elections even fairer. The Dodgers shouldn’t get to decide which teams they play, and politicians shouldn’t be able to get away with it either.

Marcela Miranda-Caballero is the Executive Director of the

California Ranked Choice Voting Coalition

. David Daley is a senior fellow at FairVote and the author of

Unrigged: How Americans Fight Back to Save Democracy



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