The Top Five Reasons for Californians to Vote No on Top Two Primaries

On 8 June 2010, voters in California will decide the fate of Proposition 14, the Top Two Primaries Act. If Top Two primaries are adopted, all candidates for Congress and state office in California will run in the June primary on a single ballot used by all voters. Then, only the two candidates who receive the two highest vote totals will be allowed to run in the general election.

Proponents of Top Two, aware that California voters rejected the idea in 2004, have been claiming that Top Two will fix California’s government by reducing partisan gridlock. There is nothing from the experience of the states that use Top Two to support their claims. However, there is ample evidence that Top Two further entrenches incumbents and reduces voter choice. In fact, it’s more than likely that Top Two would reinforce gridlock and entrench the same politicians who created it.

Close consideration shows not only that Top Two won’t work, but also that it is unpopular, undemocratic, unconstitutional, and unnecessary. There are many good election reforms that deserve support, but Proposition 14 is not one of them. Let’s explore the top five reasons for California voters to reject Top Two:

1. Top Two won’t work.

Proponents claim that Top Two will reduce partisanship in elections, the supposed cause of dysfunction in California state government. There is nothing in the experience of the states that have used Top Two, Louisiana and Washington, to suggest that it reduces partisanship. To be honest, backers of Proposition 14 should be saying that Top Two entrenches incumbents. When Washington used Top Two for the first time in 2008, out of 123 state legislative races, 8 Congressional races, and 8 statewide races, only a single incumbent was defeated in the primary – a state legislator who had a personal scandal and would almost certainly have been defeated under any system.

The claim that Top Two will reduce gridlock in California’s legislature is baseless. In the words of election law expert Richard Winger, “The real cause of gridlock in the California legislature is the rule that budgets can only be passed by a two-thirds vote of each house of the legislature… The real solution to solve California’s budget gridlock is to eliminate the rule that the budget can only be passed with two-thirds of the legislators in each house… We should let the majority party in the legislature govern. If the voters elect a majority party, let that majority party pass its budget. If we don’t like that budget, we not only have recall, initiative or referendum, we can defeat the majority party in the next election and replace it.”

Top Two would front-load the election season with an early, make-or-break primary. In the short season before the primary, the advantage to candidates with the money to bombard voters with advertising would be multiplied many times over. In an era where special interests and their front groups can funnel billions of dollars into political campaigns, independent candidates who run on good ideas and grassroots organizing will find it virtually impossible to compete with well-funded political insiders.

It’s unrealistic, too, to expect that the press will counter this imbalance by providing the voters with fair and balanced coverage. The media already pays more attention to political horse races than to candidates’ positions on the issues. If Top Two is passed, it’s improbable that the media will suddenly make the extra effort to fully inform the voters about all their choices before the primary. More likely, media outlets will simply try to pick the likely Top Two winners based on how well known and well-funded they are, and largely ignore the other candidates.

The claim that Top Two will solve California’s political problems has no factual basis. In fact, the evidence suggests that it could make existing problems worse. Perhaps most unrealistic is the idea that limiting voters’ choices in the general election will somehow make politics better. Aside from incumbent politicians, who honestly believes that giving voters less choice in elections will improve anything?

2. Top Two is unpopular.

In 2004, California voters rejected Top Two by voting 54% against Proposition 62. In 2008, voters in nearby Oregon rejected Ballot Measure 65, which would have established a Top Two system, in a landslide of 66%.

On the other hand, instant runoff voting, an improved voting system that protects voter choice, has won approval from voters in San Francisco, Berkeley, Davis, and Oakland by margins of 56%, 72%, 55%, and 69%, respectively. Charter amendments authorizing use of instant runoff voting, or IRV, have passed in San Leandro and Santa Clara counties. After using IRV for the first time, 82% of San Francisco voters said they preferred IRV to the city’s previous election system.

The numbers don’t lie: instant runoff voting is as popular as Top Two is unpopular. So why are political insiders pushing for Top Two, which has recently been rejected by a majority of Californians and a full two-thirds of voters in Oregon?

3. Top Two is undemocratic.

By design, Top Two restricts voter choice. By cutting down the field of candidates in primary season, which is notoriously dominated by big-spending special interests and party bosses, Top Two guarantees that most independent and third-party candidates, as well as grassroots candidates in the major parties, will be out of the race before most voters and journalists are even paying attention. Opposition to Top Two from numerous election reform groups, as well as voices from across the political spectrum, demonstrates Americans’ basic understanding that limiting voter choice runs counter to the idea of democracy. Voters should have the right to vote for the candidates and parties they agree with, and the public discourse suffers when independent voices are cut out of the debate.

Proponents of Top Two often claim that it won’t hurt third parties and independents. Richard Winger of Ballot Access News, America’s leading expert on ballot access laws, explains why this is false: “In practice, [Top Two] would eliminate minor party and independent candidates from the November ballot. We know this is true because Washington State tried the system for the first time in 2008, and that’s what happened. Washington, for the first time since it became a state in 1889, had no minor party or independent candidates in November for any statewide state race or for any congressional race.”

Top Two would effectively restrict voter choice to two parties – or one party in many districts. Although the Constitution makes no mention of political parties, the practical effect of Top Two would be to give the Democratic and Republican parties a monopoly on power. Which leads to the next problem with Top Two:

4. Top Two is unconstitutional.

Americans’ First Amendment right to association gives us the right to support any political party we choose. The right of political parties to run candidates for office is violated when the electoral system is set up to make it easy for dominant parties to push everyone else off the ballot. If the Democratic and Whig parties had passed laws to protect incumbent politicians and ruling parties in the 19th century, we would probably never have had a President Abraham Lincoln or a Republican Party.

Proposition 14 would immediately disqualify the Libertarian and Peace and Freedom parties, further violating their members’ First Amendment right to free association. America’s founders warned that political parties could try to use their power to further their own narrow self-interest. What would they think about a proposed law that would give two parties a virtual stranglehold on elections?

5. Top Two is unnecessary.

Instant runoff voting, an improved voting system used in San Francisco and other California cities, actually delivers the benefits that Top Two is supposed to, without the drawbacks that make Top Two worse than the status quo. Even with more than two candidates on the ballot, instant runoff voting, or IRV, ensures that the candidate with the broadest support will be the winner.

Under IRV, voters rank the candidates in their order of preference – as election reform advocates say, “IRV is as easy as 1, 2, 3.” If no candidate receives a majority of first-place votes, the candidate with the least votes is eliminated, and votes for the eliminated candidate are transferred to voters’ next choices. This process continues until one candidate has a majority.

Instant runoff voting has several clear advantages. It eliminates the common problem of “spoiled elections”, in which one candidate wins without majority support. In the same way, it eliminates the problem of similar candidates “splitting the vote”, and actually encourages positive campaigning, since it creates an incentive for candidates to appeal to their rivals’ supporters. Finally, since IRV produces a majority winner no matter how many candidates are on the ballot, it allows for an informative and broad debate during election season, with voters exposed to a range of views before making their decision.

Top Two is a deeply flawed system in comparison with instant runoff voting. With Top Two, vote-splitting will still be a problem in multi-candidate races. Negative campaigning will become the norm under Top Two: like a game of king of the mountain, candidates will throw each other in the mud in hopes of coming out on top.

Realistically, Top Two will not accomplish what its proponents claim, aside from producing false “majority winners” selected by a plurality of a minority of voters. In other words, when 10% of voters turn out for the Top Two primary and vote 40% for Candidate A and 35% for Candidate B, that doesn’t mean that the other 92.5% of voters are going to feel that they have a satisfactory choice in either Candidate A or B.

If Top Two passes, the political discourse will suffer, because the period between June primaries and November elections, currently the most active time for public debate, will be purged of the independent, third party, and grassroots candidates who so often bring fresh, innovative ideas to politics. Instead, the range of opinions voters hear will be restricted to two, often coming from candidates in the same party.

Instead of front-loading the election cycle with a make-or-break Top Two primary, instant runoff voting would allow all candidates to compete in the general election, when the vast majority of voters actually turn out. Voters would get to hear and consider viewpoints from a wider range of candidates in the general election, not just two candidates who may well belong to the same party. After considering what all the candidates have to say, voters could get out their instant runoff ballots and support the candidates they agree with most, without fear of inadvertently helping the candidates they agree with least. Maybe that’s why voters prefer IRV: instead of feeling pressured to support the lesser of two evils, they can support their favorite candidates – whether liberal, conservative, moderate, Republican, Democrat, Green, Libertarian, Peace and Freedom, American Independent, or just plain independent – and know that their vote won’t be wasted.

Instant runoff voting produces winners with broad majority support more reliably than Top Two, and without the problems that make Top Two worse than no reform. Why should voters accept an unnecessary and flawed system, when a better system is already gaining ground throughout California?

The top five reasons to reject Top Two – plus one

To recapitulate, Top Two won’t work – at least not like proponents claim it will. Top Two is unpopular – voters recently rejected it in California and Oregon. Top Two is undemocratic – it restricts voter choice and suppresses independent voices outside the two-party political establishment. Top Two is unconstitutional – it violates our civil rights by giving two parties an effective monopoly on power. Finally, Top Two is unnecessary, when instant runoff voting is better on all counts.

One last reason to vote against Proposition 14: Top Two is a top-down proposal. Ballot measures like Proposition 14 always seem to come from political insiders, usually with the backing of wealthy special interests to help advertise the alleged benefits of Top Two to a skeptical public. Indeed, Proposition 14 was placed on the ballot as part of a vote-trading deal by State Senator Abel Maldonado, who felt Top Two could help his ambitions for higher office. Governor Schwarzenegger has funneled $500,000 from his personal PAC into the campaign for Top Two, including money from corporations like Chevron, PG&E, and Wal-Mart. Corporations that have donated directly to the Proposition 14 effort include Hewlett Packard, Blue Shield of California, and Pacific Life Insurance Company. In the words of election reformer Christina Tobin, who is running as the Libertarian candidate for California Secretary of State, “It is safe to assume that large corporations regulated by the state want to have government in their pockets. They want to maintain the two-party status quo.”

Instant runoff voting, on the other hand, always comes from the grassroots. Campaigns for IRV are led by active citizens, community organizers and voters’ rights groups like FairVote, Californians for Electoral Reform, and the Coalition for Free and Open Elections (all of which are opposing Proposition 14). Referendum victories show that voters like the idea of IRV, and exit polls show that voters like how it works in practice. If the goal is to fix California’s election system so that it will produce winners with majority support, why are Proposition 14’s backers pushing the flawed, unpopular Top Two system instead of instant runoff voting?

All Californians who value democratic freedoms and sincerely want better elections should vote no on Proposition 14. Even members of the Republican and Democratic parties, if they heed the founders’ warnings about political factions, should recognize the danger of cementing the Democratic-Republican monopoly on power and vote no. You don’t have to be a libertarian to value the civil and political liberties of your fellow Americans. For supporters of electoral reform, Top Two is just a distraction from the real goals of instant runoff voting and other worthy reforms like proportional representation. We have better options than Top Two – options that we might not know about today, if Top Two had been in place earlier to stifle independent voices in the public arena.

Here’s what you can do to help stop Top Two:

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