California's Egypt Problem

If you're a Californian who follows international news, you probably heard about the Egyptian presidential election -- without realizing the connection to California.

That connection is the top-two system of selecting candidates for office. Both places used it for the first time in elections, within weeks of each other.

In Egypt, the system has prompted widespread questioning and criticism about whether the results are really democratic. Egyptians, like Californians, confronted long ballots full of candidates from a variety of parties, and had to choose one. The top two candidates -- Mohammed Morsi and Ahmed Shafik -- advanced to the second round election, which was held a week ago, and won by narrowly by Morsi.

But Egyptians felt with good reason that the elections represented a betrayal of democracy. That sense of betrayal had something to do with the military's decision to dissolve the Parliament.

But it also had to do with the system itself. With the jungle first-round primary, the two leading candidates advanced even though -- together -- they had the support of less than half of those voting.

Morsi had 24.8 percent of the vote and Shafik 23.7 percent. Neither man is considered a champion of liberal democracy, but because of the system and the decision by many more liberals to run, that vote was divided up. So Egyptians were left with a choice between an Islamist in Morsi and a creature of Hosni Mubarak's regime in Shafik. Some choice.

The Egyptians also had far-lower-than-expected turnout, just 43 percent in the first round, despite the fact that this was the first truly democratic election in some time.

If all that sounds familiar to Californians, it should. The new top-two primary system produced record-low turnout in its debut this June.

The system has produced some strange results that limit choice. In a number of districts, two candidates advanced while getting relatively meager fractions of the overall total. The result is likely to be that, in the second round, voters may feel like they have little choice, particularly if they are say, Republicans, in a district that produced two Democrats.

There is one difference between California and Egypt in these elections: their reaction to the problems of this system. Egyptians have complained angrily and taken to the streets. Californians have been content to suffer this loss of choice and democracy in silence.

Lead Prop Zero blogger Joe Mathews is California editor at Zocalo Public Square, a fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for Social Cohesion, and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (University of California, 2010).

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