Ben Boychuk and Pia Lopez

Head to Head: Should California keep 'top-two' primary?

Published: Thursday, Oct. 18, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 13A
Last Modified: Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013 - 8:05 pm

THE ISSUE: Voters approved the "top-two" primary (Proposition 14) in 2010, whereby the two highest vote-getters in the June primary face off in the November general election, regardless of party affiliation. Is it working? Both Ben and Pia say "No!"

Ben: Pia and I agree that the top-two primary was a flawed idea in theory, and a terrible idea in practice.

The idea, couched in the language of post-partisan reform, was to foster a larger, less ideologically defined electorate that would in turn boost moderate candidates at the expense of "extremists."

It's tough not the see the appeal, at least superficially, given the polarized politics that has become the order of the day in Sacramento and Washington, D.C.

But it has been an abject failure.

Pia: The traditional purpose of primaries is to allow voters who identify with a political party to vet a field of candidates and decide which ones they want to represent them on the general election ballot. Primaries have been a key check on party nominating conventions, where only party insiders get to weigh in. That function has been eliminated with the top-two primary. Instead, we effectively have two general elections.

In a state that already has significant barriers to entry for candidates – very large legislative districts, for example – the top-two primary in June skews our political system even more heavily toward incumbents, who have name recognition, and challengers who start with a lot of money.

Ben: The top-two primary has turned out to be the political equivalent of Bob's Country Bunker in "The Blues Brothers," which proudly offered its patrons "both kinds" of music: country and western.

Voters in 28 contests – 18 Assembly seats, two state Senate seats, and eight U.S. House of Representative seats – have a choice between two Democrats or two Republicans.

This was predictable – and predicted. The Center for Governmental Studies, a nonpartisan but left-leaning public policy think tank, published a report in 2010 that concluded, "more than one-third of all state legislative and congressional races could produce general election runoffs between two members of the same party."

Pia: Ben is absolutely right. A general election that has two Democrats or two Republicans reduces voter choice at the moment when most voters participate. The top-two primary has front-ended voter choice, when voter turnout is lowest and the candidates are just introducing themselves to the public.

Ben: The top-two primary also effectively banished third-party and independent candidates from the general election ballot.

Pia: Though third parties rarely elect their candidates, they play a vital role. For example, when major parties ignore pressing problems or are slow to embrace innovation, third parties can bring issues forward. They can siphon off enough votes in a general election that major parties have an electoral incentive to incorporate their issues. For example, Social Security and child labor laws began as third-party issues.

Ben: The top-two primary so far has not led to cleaner or less rancorous elections.

Six conservative Republicans battled to get a spot on the November ballot in the 8th Congressional District in Bakersfield, with neither of the top-two candidates winning more than 15 percent of the deeply riven vote.

Meanwhile, in San Diego, state Sen. Juan Vargas, a Democrat, gave $50,000 to his Republican primary opponent in an effort to derail his Democratic rival Denise Ducheny's campaign in the 51st Congressional District. Ducheny came in third, and Vargas now appears to be cruising to victory.

Pia: In the newly drawn 6th Assembly District in our region, we had two conservative Republicans running against one Democrat. They finished 37 percent to 32 percent to 31 percent – with the two Republicans advancing to the general election.

One of the Republican candidates had made a very stupid promise in a flier: "I pledge to support whichever candidate is the top-finishing Republican in the June primary election" – leaving voters with no choice, an unopposed candidate, in the general election.

That candidate has backed off the pledge, but the 47 percent of voters in that district who are not Republican have a choice only between two conservative Republicans who differ little on issues. In the June-to-November campaign, voters get only a nasty intraparty battle of no interest to the larger public.

Ben: The Center for Governmental Studies' 2010 report concluded: "There might be some races in which a 'top two, same party' general election runoff could be close enough that voters from another party or (decline-to-state) voters could swing the election to a more moderate candidate."

But that's hardly a guarantee.

Pia: Even if the top-two primary did push candidates to the middle – which it doesn't – why does anyone think that campaigns in the mushy middle are a good thing? Don't voters deserve to hear a broad spectrum of views in the general election when participation is highest – even if a candidate doesn't win? That's a basic function of elections that the top-two primary denies to California voters.

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