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Top-two system: Early returns

by Raphael J. Sonenshein

June 11, 2014 | 10:41 am

<em>California Capitol building in Sacramento. Photo via Shutterstock.com</em>

California Capitol building in Sacramento. Photo via Shutterstock.com

In the 2014 primary, Californians got our first real chance to see the top-two system up close and in full flower. Back in 2012, the statewide offices were not up for grabs. This time they all were.  And the early returns on the new system are mixed.

Like most election reforms, the top-two solves some problems and exacerbates others.

Voters passed Proposition 14 in June 2010, which put the top-two primary in place. The motivation came from Republican moderates, specifically then-State Sen. Abel Maldonado and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. In early 2009, Maldonado delivered the critical state Senate vote for a budget package that included tax increases in exchange for getting the top-two reform onto the statewide ballot. The governor then raised the bulk of the money for Proposition 14 with support from business, and in the face of the opposition of both major parties and minor parties as well.

Maldonado and Schwarzenegger saw partisan polarization as the central problem in California government; as moderate Republicans, they were particularly sensitive to the challenges Republican moderates faced in party primaries. The wrecked Republican Party brand had no chance in California’s future unless moderates could defang Republican right-wingers who could deny the party label to those defined as insufficiently conservative. The Republican primary already had cost Republicans the chance to run popular Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan against embattled Democratic Gov. Gray Davis in 2002, and it was only the wild, open ballot in the 2003 recall campaign that allowed Schwarzenegger to bypass the party primary and win the governor’s office.

From that standpoint, the system they created clearly has worked. The top-two has pulled the teeth out of the Republican primary, a central feature of the radicalization of the Republican Party, both here and nationally.

Republican candidates who have not had to face the litmus tests of a party primary finished in the top-two in the governor’s race (Neel Kashkari), for controller (Ashley Swearengin), in the 33rd District congressional race (Elan Carr), and came within an inch of finishing both first and second in the state controller’s race and for a Democratic congressional seat in the 31st District. And there is nothing that Republican right-wingers can do about it.

The relatively moderate Kashkari would have had a difficult time against the very conservative Tim Donnelly in a traditional Republican primary.

Republicans may still lose just about everything in November, but they have a more competitive ticket to show for future campaigns than they would have had under the old system. Put another way, it appears that the best way to empower and elevate the morale of Republican voters is to remove their own power to enforce ideological homogeneity. Even better from the standpoint of the moderate wing of the Republican Party, the top-two allows business to play in the dominant Democratic Party by supporting pro-business Democrats in two-person November runoffs.

But there are other problems in the system that don’t involve the Republican primary, and the top-two primary may make them worse. While the Republican primary is one of the most damaging features of American politics today (look at what is happening in Mississippi), the Democratic primary has played an overlooked role in mobilizing new constituencies that will eventually revitalize American politics: younger voters, Latinos, unmarried women and others with a point of view that needs to be heard but who tend to be the hardest to get to the polls.

In 2008, a historic presidential race brought out millions of new voters, many of whom promptly returned to the sidelines in the 2010 midterms, rejoined the action in somewhat lesser numbers in 2012 and will likely fall back again in 2014. Their intermittent involvement has meant that we have two competing governments in the United States, the presidential and the congressional, and they are in gridlock. We have the problem of high expectations for change bolstered by occasional voters, opposed by empowered resistance built around consistent voting in off-year elections.

The big turnout in November 2008 was foreshadowed by the colossal interest in the primary campaigns pitting Barack Obama against Hillary Clinton. Rather than enforcing an ideological line (there were few differences between the two, except on the Iraq war), the primaries energized new types of voters and helped set the stage for a high turnout in November.
 Meanwhile, the Republican primaries in both 2008 and 2012 forced the eventual presidential nominees to move far to the right, hurting their chances in November.

Why are Democratic primaries able to do this? For voters who are less attached and even alienated, “cues” make a big difference, and the biggest cue is party. A party primary for Democrats means that there is a lot at stake, as only one candidate can survive. Mail pours into households, phones ring off the hook, people come to their door. And all the ambitious Democrats of all stripes who are hard to discipline fight it out with only one left to face the other party’s nominee. Then voters know who the Democratic nominee is.

The top-two system changes all that. We know this in Los Angeles from years of experience with nonpartisan elections for mayor. People just don’t know who the Democrat is in the race. Confusion reigns. In the top-two primary, you see lots of people on the ballot, including a bunch of Democrats, a bunch of Republicans, and a bunch of others. Mailed fliers say this person or that is the “real Democrat.” There’s no way to keep multiple strong Democrats off the primary ballot, even if that competition might divide the Democratic vote and lead to Republicans finishing both first and second. Or, when two Democrats make the runoff, then it’s like an old-fashioned Democratic primary, but in November, which is kind of like seeing snow in July.

Among the many disturbing things this spring for those who want to expand the electorate was the particularly low turnout in Los Angeles County, despite the presence of a historically rare brace of county elections, for sheriff and supervisor. Turnout was barely two-thirds of the statewide average, which was itself historically low. Los Angeles County is where the new electorate is concentrated, and the top-two system did not help to bring them out in an off-year, which already was likely to see their turnout decline. 

We can’t blame the low turnout just on the top-two system. Midterm primary turnout is generally low anyway, and there was no drama in the governor’s race to draw more voters to the polls. But we can conclude that the system not only will not help solve our turnout problem; it may contribute to the problem itself.

Taming the Republican primary may take a toll on overall participation.  We have long known that nonpartisan elections have generally lower turnouts than partisan elections, and in this case the antibiotic does more than wipe out the infection of radicalism.   

Pressure likely will soon grow within both parties to create “pre-primary” activities, such as nominating conventions, that will act to identify a party’s consensus nominee. Without that intervention, odd results are likely to proliferate. The controller’s race may foreshadow a problem for Democrats in the 2018 race for governor. With three or four strong Democratic candidates, might the vote split lead to two Republicans in the runoff? For both conservative Republicans and for Democrats, the top-two primary is likely to become a headache for which new and creative party systems will be required. 

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