In summary

The data shows how California’s top-two primary left GOP voters with few good options—or an option they couldn’t stomach—in several key races. 

This week, with California’s 2018 midterm behind us, we’ll be offering insights into the results with five charts—one per day. Today, Wednesday, about 442,000 ballots are still waiting to be tabulated, so we’ll update these posts as warranted.

Some races are more popular than others.

Sure, even the least engaged voters pick one of the candidates running to fill the state’s chief executive. This year, some 12 million cast their vote for either Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom or Republican businessman John Cox. But as voters work their way down the state’s super-sized ballot, within which they were asked to weigh in on the more obscure positions of California governance, many had a habit of shrugging and moving on.

In fact, a closer look at the statewide races that received the fewest votes this year underscores how California’s electoral system is leaving Republican and GOP-leaning voters with few good options.

First, let’s start with the most popular races.

At last count, the governor’s race received the highest number of votes, followed by the contest for secretary of state and attorney general. Among the statewide ballot measures, voters were most likely to weigh in on Proposition 6 (which would have repealed an increase in the gas tax) and Prop. 10 (which would have nixed state restrictions on rent control).

At the bottom of the list are four races for statewide office: insurance commissioner, U.S. Senate and state schools superintendent and lieutenant governor. The race for the state’s second-ranking executive officer received just shy of 2 million votes—16 percent fewer votes than those cast for governor.

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The lackluster enthusiasm for the school chief race may come as a surprise to the various donors and interest groups who poured more than $63 million into that race, making it the most expensive on the ballot. (That works out to a little over $6 per vote, for those counting at home).

What do all those least-popular races have in common? There wasn’t a Republican to be found competing in any of them.

That’s thanks in large part to California’s top-two election system, which allows only the first- and second-place candidates from the primary to compete in the general election, regardless of which party they belong to. In the contests for U.S. senator and lieutenant governor, only Democrats made the cut. In the insurance regulator race, Steve Poizner, a former Republican, ran as a political independent. And though the race to be California’s schools superintendent is nonpartisan by law, it so happens that both candidates were Democrats.

One argument in favor of the top two is that it strips political parties of power to pick and choose nominees. It also, in theory, drives candidates and voters to the ideological center. In a race with two Democrats, for example, centrist and right-leaning voters theoretically will be more likely to choose the moderate in the race.

But the numbers suggest that in the face of two blue choices, many Republican-leaning voters opted not to choose at all.

An analysis of county election data shows that the voters most likely to leave the double-D races for lieutenant governor and U.S. Senate blank on the ballot live in counties with more registered Republicans than Democrats.

For example, in San Francisco County, where Democrats outnumber Republicans by over 50 percentage points, there was only a modest 2.6 percent drop off in votes between the race for governor and the race for U.S. Senate.

Meanwhile, in Lassen County, one of the state’s most conservative, nearly one-quarter of voters who cast their ballots for governor skipped the U.S. choice.

Presumably, some Democratic voters were turned off by the partisan uniformity as well. The competing “D”s and “R”s on the ballots make the process of choosing a candidate relatively easy for most voters who already lean one way or another. Between two progressives like Eleni Kounalakis and Sen. Ed Hernandez, the two lieutenant governor candidates, it’s possible many Democrats were stumped.

But the results suggest that the drop-off mostly came from Republicans: Rather than choose a “lesser of two evils,” many right-leaning voters simply didn’t choose at all.

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Ben Christopher

Ben covers California politics and elections. Prior to that, he was a contributing writer for CalMatters reporting on the state's economy and budget. Based out of the San Francisco Bay Area, he has written...