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Author and analyst Steven Hill assesses top two primary for California

In an oped in the Sacramento Bee, Steven Hill judges whether or not top two primaries would solve California’s political problems, based on how they’ve done in Washington state.

Steven Hill is an analyst for the Center for Voting and Democracy, the director of the Political Reform Program for the New America Foundation, and an author.  Books he has written include Fixing Elections:  The Failure of America’s Winner Take All Politics and 10 Steps to Repair American Democracy.

The top two primary system is described by Hill:

Under that method, the nominees from all political parties, including multiple candidates from the same party, compete against each other in a single primary free-for-all, reminiscent of California’s short-lived use of the popular “blanket primary” back in the mid-1990s (which was done away with as a result of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling).

But unlike the blanket primary, which advanced to the November election the primary winner for every political party, resulting in a multicandidate field, the top two primary advances only the top two finishers.

He goes on to assess whether or not the top two primary has been successful in its goals – moderate politicians, more competition, and getting rid of so-called “spoilers,” among other things – in Washington state.  He reaches the conclusion that the top two primary is not a solution to California’s problems, and that instant runoff voting would be a much better idea.  Read the full article here.

Of the 98 state House races, only five races (5 percent) were won by a competitive margin (defined as a 4 percentage point difference between the top two candidates). Sixty-five races (66 percent) were won by landslide margins of 20 points or higher, with 17 of those races uncontested.

The results in the 26 state Senate races were very similar, with 62 percent of races won by landslides and only two races competitive. That’s a level of competition that is no better than what we have now in California.

How about electing moderates? How did the Washington elections do in that regard? The term “moderate” is a relative one, with different definitions from state to state, so a better way to examine this is to look for how many opportunities are available for moderates to get elected. In theory, when you have two Democrats running against each other in November, or two Republicans, the voters from the other party could cross over and act as a moderating influence against either the most conservative Republican or the most liberal Democrat winning.

In Washington’s House races, only six out of 98 (6 percent) had two candidates from the same party, and in the Senate, two out of 26 races (8 percent) did.So that’s not a lot of races in which moderates could have an opportunity to get elected. With Washington’s elections being so noncompetitive generally, that greatly limited electoral opportunities for moderates.

One positive from the Washington elections is that for the handful of races that were decided by competitive margins, they did not have to worry about spoiler candidacies coming from third-party candidates. But is essentially banning third parties from participating in the November election really the best way to handle this?Afar better way would be to use instant runoff voting, where voters could rank a first, second and third choice, and the runoff rankings would be used to elect majority winners in a single election. Third-party candidates would not be spoilers, and this would preserve voters’ choices. As discussion of the top two primary proceeds in California, it seems important that the discussion be factbased.


  1. Chad Chad February 9, 2009

    The top 2 system is a massive failure. Not only does it prevent third parties but it also keeps us from getting rid of terrible candidates. For example look at our (Washington state) governors race this past election. Christine Gregoire is a terrible governor, yet the Democratic party said that they would politically blackball any democrat that ran against her because she decided to run again. They did this so that they would have a better chance at winning instead of having the possibility of 2 other party candidates from being the top 2. The GOP ran Dino Rossi (who is a jack***) because he is the only person in the state with the name recognition to compete against Gregoire.

    This led to an election between an incompetent and a fear mongering Karl Rovian. I could not vote for either one. Instant Runoff would be a massive improvement over this system.

  2. Clay Shentrup Clay Shentrup February 9, 2009

    Most of the pro-IRV talking points don’t hold water. IRV may actually increase costs compared to ordinary runoffs. And it also poses serious fraud risks, due to the fact that it necessitates centralized tabulation, with no ability to have true precinct sub-totals. But the bigger concern is that it simply fails to live up to claims that it eliminate spoilers, and that it discourages strategic voting.

    Here is a 4-candidate Instant Runoff Voting election (candidates named A,B,C,D):

    #voters their vote
    35% A > C > D > B
    17% B > C > D > A
    32% C > D > B > A
    16% D > B > C > A

    Instant Runoff Voting selects candidate B as the winner, beating A in the final round, 65% to 35%.

    But wait!

    A huge 67% majority of voters would rather have candidate C than candidate B. And candidate C received nearly twice as many first-place votes as candidate B, 32% to 17%. And an even larger 83% super-majority of voters would rather have candidate D than B (and D got just a little fewer first-place votes than B). So the claim that IRV “elects majority winners” is seriously misleading. Also…

    * A is a spoiler (if he would drop out of the race, C would win instead of B).
    * The first row of voters have an incentive to betray candidate A by pretending candidate C is their actual favorite – then they get their second choice instead of their last.
    * The third row of voters have an incentive to betray candidate C by pretending candidate D is their favorite – then they get their second choice instead of their third.

    Also, C is the Condorcet “beats-all” winner, but doesn’t make it to the final round: 65% majority says C>A; 67% majority says C>B; 84% majority says C>D.

    And A is the Condorcet “lose-to-all” loser, but makes it to the final round (65% majorities say others>A).

  3. Trent Hill Trent Hill February 9, 2009

    IRV seems to be, to me, just a more confusing style of voting which will almost inevitably lead to the same strategy-voting we have now. The solution isnt to change the system, but to change the PEOPLE.

  4. Green Ferret Green Ferret February 9, 2009

    If this same scenario were to happen under our current plurality system, A would win, despite the fact that 65% of voters identify A as their least favorite candidate.

    IRV > plurality

    Interestingly enough, voters agree with the above statement, as IRV has won in nearly every instance where it was proposed, often by large margins. It’s certainly better than the anti-democratic top two system (which voters dislike, by the way).

  5. Catholic Trotskyist Catholic Trotskyist February 9, 2009

    There is no way to change the people. Trent I believe you are a Christian, then you know that the weight of original sin is too great to accommodate such a major change. All major changes are made through changing the system. The Top 2 primary and IRV are both great ideas.

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