Monday, June 14, 2010

Politics: The "Top Two" Primary

KENNEWICK, WASHINGTON - While the talking heads in the mainstream media have focused on the victories of principally self-financed, conservative female candidates in last week's California primary, those looking at the longer-term have pointed out that the most significant result from that election may have been the passage of Proposition 14. I've long been in the chorus that has pointed out the extreme polarization of politics in the Golden State, though I've stopped short of calling it "ungovernable." Proposition 14, by establishing a "top-two" primary, is the first significant step passed by the voters to try to address that polarization, though the experience in this state, Washington, which has had a "top-two" primary for about a year, indicates it might not help very much.

Both Proposition 14 and a similar measure passed by the voters of Washington state have thrown out the party-based primary system. Traditionally, the primary election has served as a public nominating system for each political party. Exactly one Democrat, exactly one Republican, and a single representative of each smaller political party (if they fielded a candidate at all) would move on from the primary to the general election. Under the "top two" primary (which some have called a "jungle" primary), only the two highest vote-getting candidates move on to the general election, regardless of party. Those two candidates might be two Democrats, two Republicans, or even two independents. The parties--especially the smaller parties, which are no longer guaranteed a general election ballot line--hate this system, as it moves control of the process out of the parties and directly to the public. As a result, proponents of the "top two" system say it will result in more moderate, broadly-acceptable candidates appearing as choices for voters in the general election, instead of extreme candidates favored by party activists.

The "top two" primary came to be in Washington state not because of extreme polarization, as Washington (at least for statewide races) had a history of fairly moderate politicians by national standards. It instead came about because the long-standing "open" primary, in which voters could vote for any candidate in the primary regardless of party, had been abolished in favor of a "closed" primary in which voters had to declare their party affiliation and take a ballot with only the candidates from that party. The parties had pushed for the "closed" system on the basis of preventing the "distortion" which took place when only one major party had a primary race, and voters from the other party would vote for the candidate in the contested race they perceived to be the weakest in the general election. This was a relatively rare situation, and voters instead viewed the new system as decreasing their choices. The "top two" primary passed handily as a result, and has since been upheld by the US Supreme Court.

Yet, despite the new rules, there have yet to be any races in Washington in which the "top two" system has clearly changed the results. One Democrat and one Republican still have appeared on the general election ballot. Those candidates haven't been noticeably more moderate in their ideology, or ones clearly not favored by their parties. In contrast, states that have implemented "clean elections" reforms involving public matching funds, most notably Maine, have seen clear effects.

Because of its history of "open" primaries and relative lack of polarization, Washington may not be indicative of how the "top two" primary will play out in California. However, I daresay the result was most significant in its symbolism, that the voters protested the polarized system by voting for Proposition 14. If they had really wanted significant change, they would have needed to vote for campaign finance reform.

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