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.