Why wasn’t there a Democrat on the final ballot in the Special Election for California’s Senate District 1 in 2019?
By Hailey Martin
Democrats in California’s Senate District 1 got a stinky surprise when they saw their ballots for the 2019 Special Election to pick a new State Senator: a choice between Republican Brian Dahle and Republican Kevin Kiley. No Democrat.
The answer is a little complicated but stick with me.
The first thing to know is that in 2010, California voters approved Proposition 14 with 53.7% of the vote, a constitutional amendment allowing primary elections to qualify the top two vote-getters regardless of party. The Proposition was opposed by the Democratic Party, the Republican Party, the Green Party, the Peace & Freedom Party, the American Independent Party, and the Libertarian Party. (I’m not sure we’ve all agreed on anything before or since but we agreed on this.) Prop 14 was supported by Arnold Schwarzenegger and backed with big money from Hewlett-Packard, Blue Shield of California, and Herbalife International. (Not really sure what Herbalife’s end game was but they gave $100,000 and now Prop 14 is the law of the land in CA.)
I don’t want to get too far into the weeds, but I know that if you are a clear-headed person you are wondering how to repeal Prop 14. Per Ballotopedia, the first thing you have to do is “submit the full text of the measure to the California attorney general’s Initiative Coordinator along with a request for a summary, contact information, a signed statement certifying that the proponents are qualified electors and a $2,000 deposit, refundable upon qualification for the ballot.” After that, to qualify for the ballot, you will need to gather signatures amounting to 8% of the last Governor’s race. Since 12,464,235 people voted for Governor in the last election, you will need to collect 997,139 signatures.
How long has it been since a volunteer-driven statewide initiative qualified for the ballot in California? Per John Wildermuth in an article for the San Francisco Chronical published on January 2nd 2019 titled Qualifying a California ballot measure to become a ‘playground of billionaires’, “Proposition 117, a 1990 measure that designated mountain lions as a protected species, was the last statewide campaign to use only volunteers to collect the needed signatures.” It has been 30 years.
Some California Democratic voters might remember having the option of two Democrats on the ballot for United States Senator in 2018—a choice between Diane Feinstein and Kevin de Leon. Diane Feinstein and Kevin de Leon came out as the top two vote-getters after a primary with more than 30 candidates. The same principle applied to the Special Election for State Senate to replace Ted Gaines after he was elected to the Board of Equalization and vacated his State Senate seat.
In addition to the rules about the top-two primary, the primary for the special election for Senate District 1 got a little weird. It included six candidates. Four Republicans: Brian Dahle, Theodore Dziuba, Rex Hime, and Kevin Kiley. And two* Democrats: Steve Baird and Silke Pflueger.
*Except that Steve Baird had been a life-long Republican prior to the election. He is known for being heavily involved in the “State of Jefferson” movement, the effort to split parts of Northern California and Southern Oregon into a 51st state. Baird changed his party registration just before declaring and then dropped out of the race the day after it was too late to take his name off the ballot.
After the primary, two Republican Assemblymen emerged as the top vote-getters in a six-way race to fill the seat left vacant by Ted Gaines. In the top-two primary, Brian Dahle got first place with 28.7 percent of the votes, Kevin Kiley came in second with 28.5 percent, and Democrat Silke Pflueger came in third with 25.8 percent.
The final count for the six candidates:
Steve Baird: 9,035 votes; 5.8 percent
Silke Pflueger: 40,304 votes; 25.8 percent
Brian D. Dahle: 44,764 votes; 28.7 percent
Theodore Dziuba: 3,222 votes; 2.1 percent
Rex Hime: 14,223 votes; 9.1 percent
Kevin Kiley: 44,519 votes; 28.5 percent
You are reading that right. If Steve Baird hadn’t split the Democratic vote (we assume his votes would have gone to the real Democratic candidate, Silke Pflueger) Silke Pflueger would have had enough votes to qualify to the general in the special election.
So what’s next?
Because repealing Prop 14 will take a lot of money and time, and because it is unlikely to happen in the near future, we need to work with what we’ve got. In Republican-held districts like Assembly District 1, it’s important that we unite behind the best Democratic candidate and work hard to get them elected. We need to stay on top of the field and educate our friends and neighbors about the candidates. If there is a spoiler like Steve Baird, we need to come out aggressively with the facts. And most importantly, every single one of us needs to VOTE every single time.
Vote like your life depends on it.
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