Could America’s First and Only Openly-Atheist Congressperson Lose His Seat This November?

Pete Stark is in trouble.

Pete Stark (Bill Clark - Roll Call)

For years, Stark has represented California’s 13th congressional district in the House of Representatives. He has served since 1973. He’s currently the longest serving member of Congress from California.

But now there’s a rule change in effect:

In 2010, California’s voters approved Proposition 14, which replaced the conventional party primaries with a different system known as “Top Two,” copied from Washington state. Under this system, which took effect last year, all candidates appear on the same ballot, with their respective party labels next to their names, and the top two voter-getters advance to the general election, with the possibility of two Democrats or two Republicans facing off in very safe districts.

Yesterday, three candidates for the redrawn 15th congressional district in California — Stark included — faced off in a primary. Stark and his Democratic opponent, Dublin City Councilman Eric Swalwell, took the top two spots and they’ll face off again in November.

Take a look at those results. Yes, Stark is on top, but by a relatively slim margin. Those ~15,000 voters who voted for Chris Pareja now have to vote for either Stark or Swalwell in November and that’s more than enough people to erase the ~4,000 vote difference between the two Democrats and swing the election away from Stark.

Swalwell is ecstatic over the results:

“We survived this first heat, we’re moving on, and we kept the incumbent under 50 percent,” an elated Swalwell said Tuesday night. “A lot of Democrats may have voted for Stark because that’s what they knew, but we’re confident that in six more months we can talk to them and earn their votes as well.”

Pereja was a “Tea Party friendly” candidate and that means his supporters aren’t likely to support Pete Stark. To quote Bay Area News Group reporter Josh Richman:

It’s hard to imagine any voters who backed the tea party-friendly Pareja will leapfrog over the somewhat more moderate Swalwell to embrace Stark, a liberal paragon, in November.

If we lose Stark, we lose the only openly-non-theistic Congress member we have.

One way you can help keep him in office is by donating to his campaign.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Allen

    The possibility that an openly-atheist congressman may lose his seat aside, I love the fact that there are places in the US exploring the use of alternate voting systems.  I personally like the idea of ranked or rated voting systems where voters basically give an opinion on EACH candidate, but the “Top X” system is interesting in its own right.  See this Wikipedia article for more details: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voting_systems

    • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

      This isn’t much of an ‘alternative voting system’.  California’s “top two” is an abomination.  Yes, we need ranked voting, and also proportional representation.  That is, more representatives per geographic area, and if someone gets enough votes, they get in.  That way a significant voting block could get real representation, without needing to be the majority.

      So, say you have districts combined.  It might be 70/30 Con/Lib, but you’d get 2 Con reps and 1 Lib rep, not 3 Con reps.

  • Nordog6561

    Politics aside, if I were an atheist I would want Stark to “represent” me in any way in the public’s eye.  There are numerous videos online showing him in rather reprehensible behavior.

    I have no problem with the fact that the demographics of  “atheists”  and “liberals” both indeed include fine and descent people.  Pete Stark just isn’t one of them.

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/FYDLXO6YKNMVD5DFHYIVF2IGVQ hobbitaur

       Agreed. Not a fan of Stark.

  • http://www.everydayintheparkwithgeorge.com/ Matt E

    I have a problem with this. Much as I appreciate Pete Stark’s status as the only open atheist in Congress, I really don’t like people meddling in politics from the outside. It will be the job of the person who wins this election to represent the people of the 15th congressional district of California and the decision should be left to them. I am not from the 15th congressional district of California, I’m not even from California. It is not my place to be sending money to influence that election and, as a resident of Washington, I deeply resent the money coming in from out of state to try to overturn our law allowing gay marriage.

    • MG

      Just exactly what I came here to say.

    • http://www.holytape.etsy.com Holytape

       However, that is a mute point.  The people opposed to your stances do and will donate money.    Until, the rules of game change, protesting the current situation by not following suit, isn’t a protest; it’s a forfeiture.  And the outcome is the same between getting beaten and forfeiting.    The people opposed to gay marriage aren’t going to look at your stance as principled, they are going to look at it as foolish. 

      It’s just like people who say that they don’t vote because they’re protesting system.  That doesn’t work.  It just ensures that people with the opposite stances are elected and will do everything they can to maintain the status quo.  

      Money is power in the American system.  I don’t like it.  But until we build up enough politic power to change the system, it won’t change on it’s own.  And the only way to get politic power is to have representatives in office.

  • http://www.skeptimusprime.com/ Dylan Walker

    Perhaps I just don’t know enough but this seems like a fundamentally stupid way to pick candidates for an election.  Our choices are already fairly limited, pitting two people from the same party against each other seems to just further limit them.

  • fett101

    Voting or supporting him simply because he’s an atheist is pretty dumb.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=750428174 Paddy Reddin

    Shame America won’t just accept Proportional Representation, it’s the fairest system.

    Anyways, though I can’t vote here, even if I could I wouldn’t vote for someone just because s/he is Atheist.  Think I’ll pass.

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    Meh, it’s an open primary, people vote strange ways.  Heck, I voted for a Birther for Senate just yesterday.  I’m not a fan of Diane Feinstein, but I know she’ll win.  It would be amusing to see her face off against a birther, so I tossed a vote that way.  Doesn’t mean I’d vote for a birther in the final.

    Same thing with a local state race.  Two GOP vs. One Dem, heavily Conservative area.  I know I’m going to get a GOP in November.  So at this point I can vote Dem, and have it wasted, or vote for one of the GOP, and help pick which GOP I’ll get in November.  That is, with this top two monstrosity, my primary vote is much more effective than my general vote.

    As it happens I decided to ask each candidate how many lawn signs they put out, and vote for the one that had the fewest, which turned out to be the Dem, with zero.  I’m not going to get the candidate I’d personally like, so maybe I can arm twist the ones I don’t want against each other and get some issue of mine dealt with.  I hate lawn signs on public property.

    People have a lot of reasons for voting specific ways, especially in the primary.  It’s dangerous to make predictions for the general based on the primary.

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    with the possibility of two Democrats or two Republicans facing off in very safe districts

    With the possibility that with the proper vote split, a safe Republican area could end up with two Democrat choices, or vice versa.

  • http://twitter.com/TominousTone Thomas Lawson

    What’s wrong with Swalwell? Check yourself, people. Don’t just vote for someone because they resemble you. Swalwell has already sent a shot across Stark’s bow, and Stark fabricated an accusation that skirted the lines of slander, so I think Stark’s retirement is calling…regardless of his non-theism.

    Thought I’d add that Swalwell is using the exact same tactic that Stark used about 40 years ago, i.e., turf the Washington Insider guy for new blood.

  • Hibernia86

    The primary vote system is pretty stupid. France has the same system which is how they ended up with a far rightwing racist as one of the two Presidential candidates back in 2002. If you have members of the same party running against each other, you only split the vote and allow the other side to win. The Democrats should only allow one candidate to run and have their own primary before the official primary. Any Democrat who skips the party primary for the official primary will be kicked out of the party.

  • Beabox17

    Isn’t supporting someone solely because they are atheist as bad as supporting someone solely because they are theist?

  • http://northierthanthou.com/ northierthanthou

    Crap!

  • Gunstargreen

    I’m sorry but voting for a person because they are an atheist is just as bad as voting for a person because because they’re an evangelical Christian. Let the state of California weigh their options and decide for themselves instead of being a hypocrite, Hemant.

  • http://www.holytape.etsy.com Holytape

     I think it’s a better way.   Let’s say you live in a distrinct that is 60/40 in favor of the right.  In the primary, candidate that gets more of the base tends to win.  Primaries tend to favor the more extreme.   In the general election there is not a pull back to the middle, because people are unlikely to jump to the other primary winner, who probably had to take a more left approach to win there own primary.   This way the more moderate candidate has a chance of winning.

    I know there is the whole fallacy of the middle.  Look at the current situation.  We have more and more extremest in office.   And all of the pressure is to not work with people of opposing views, and to become more and more extreme to please the base.   This way there is at least some drag back to the middle.

  • David B.

    I’m an atheist, a big fan of your blog, was happy to hear (years ago) that nonbelievers finally had a public voice…  and I voted against Stark.

    Saying “support him; he’ a non-theist” is no better than “everyone vote against him, he’s an EVIL ATHEIST”

    The man has shown himself to be a partisan ideologue, and increasingly one who’s (I hesitate to say “senile”) out of touch and prone to embarrassing behavior.

    Swalwell hasn’t made religion an issue in his campaign at all, and that’s all I’m looking for in a candidate.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Arthur-Bryne/100002441143047 Arthur Bryne

    Sigh. The new California system is supposed to generate more moderates. Unfortunately, Stark is comparatively far to the left.

    Really unfortunately, none of the conservative states are doing this; just relatively liberal California. So, the liberals moderate their liberalism, but the conservatives stay extreme, making for a further net shift to conservatism. Whee.

    Contrariwise, running this as an experiment in one state lets any major bugs be worked out without wrecking the country entirely if something unanticipated shows up in practice.

    • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

      The open primary defeats the purpose of having a primary.  It shuts out third parties from building support, and it creates all kinds of vote split disasters.

      Here’s another question- why is the ideal number of candidates “two”?  I posit that it’s because we’re used to having exactly two electable parties.  The problem with two is that each party has to be just far enough away from center to keep their supporters from jumping ship.

      Minority parties are often responsible for pushing progressive legislation.  The big parties won’t risk anything, but if a smaller party can get support for an idea, then a larger party has to work with them to maintain the coalition.

      I had a poli sci teacher tell us that in some regards, the Soviet Union was more democratic than the US.  Sure, you only had one party on the ballot, but you did vote for the local person who would best represent you.


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