Primary Follies: "Top Two" in California

In The Los Angeles Times, Jean Merl reports on the state of the debate surrounding California's proposed "Top Two Primaries Act" that would create a form of open primary system in which the primary voters' "top two" choices would advance to the general election. The measure was crafted by the state's new Lieutenant Governor, Abel Maldonado, and is opposed by Californians for Electoral Reform. Merl reports:
In June, Californians will decide whether to bring back a version of the open primary for regular state and congressional elections . . . The Top Two Primaries Act would require that all candidates compete in a single primary open to all registered voters -- similar to the way special elections are run. The top two vote-getters would advance to a runoff . . .

Former Democratic state legislator Steve Peace has led efforts to fashion a new open-primary proposal since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled an earlier voter-approved version unconstitutional. Surveys by the Field Poll and the Public Policy Institute of California this year found voter support for the June measure, but the major political parties are vigorously opposed. [Emphasis added.]

They say that omitting party affiliation would deprive voters of important information about candidates. In addition, California Democratic Party Chairman John L. Burton said, candidates would have to raise more money to reach a larger pool of voters, opening the door wider to special interests, a major source of campaign contributions.

"It also freezes out third-party candidates, who will never make the runoff," Burton said. "They ought to have a shot." [Republican strategist] Hoffenblum calls the third-party argument "a ruse" by the two major parties, whose leaders "like the system the way it is."

"These third parties are not really relevant to the process anyway," Hoffenblum said. If they "want to become viable, they need to come in first or second" in an open primary.


Samuel Wilson said...

"Omitting party affiliation," eh? Very interesting. Given that the measure as described countenances no ban on advertising, how would voters be deprived of "important information?" Here's a confession that the two major parties depend on brand-name loyalty, perhaps more than anything else. But given their fundraising advantages, without some spending limit on advertising, the Bipolarchy probably doesn't have to worry even if the measure passes.

Ross Levin said...

Correction: this is NOT an open primary system. An open primary is one in which any voter can vote in any primary. A closed primary, for contrast, is one in which only members of a party can vote in that party's primary - here in Pennsylvania, for instance, there are only Democratic primaries which Democrats vote in and Republican primaries which Republicans vote in. The top two is not a form of an open primary system.

d.eris said...

"Here's a confession that the two major parties depend on brand-name loyalty, perhaps more than anything else." Heh, no kidding. As for myself, I'm not sure precisely what to make of the debate, having not read up very much on the proposal, as Ross's correction makes plain. The "top two" system could be seen as the most ruthless institutionalization of the duopoly form, requiring that there are ONLY two candidates on the general election ballot, as I understand it. But this formalism, or even abstraction (necessary so as to remain within the realm of the constitutional, one presumes), could be seen as a negation of the Democratic-Republican ruling alliance.

Bob Richard said...

(Disclosure: I am an officer and board member of Californians for Electoral Reform, mentioned in the original post.)

Ross is quite right. Depending on how you use the term "primary", the Maldonado proposal either (1) does away with primary elections altogether, or (2) is a non-partisan blanket primary.

The problem is that much of the damage this measure does to small parties and independents is not in the state constitutional amendment. It's in related election law provisions that go into effect if the amendment passes. These provisions (1) make it virtually impossible for small parties to meet the requirements for staying on the ballot, (2) eliminate write-in votes in the second round, and (3) are in direct conflict with provisions of another June ballot measure about campaign finance, with unpredictable judicial consequences.

The Maldonado proposal is very similar to top two in Washington. Proponents like to say that it therefore passes constitutional muster. But the Washington law has only passed one constitutional test. At least one more challenge is still working its way through the courts. Californians have been to this movie before. The ending was a Supreme Court decision (Democratic Party v. Jones) ruling the partisan blanket primary unconstitutional. This measure (and top two in Washington) are supposedly crafted to get around that decision. I don't believe they really do.

d.eris said...

Thanks for all this info, Bob.