Viewpoints: More mischief in ‘top-two’ primary system

Published: Friday, May. 23, 2014 - 12:00 am

I have a confession to make. I’m voting for Republican Tim Donnelly for governor in June. Not because I agree with him on any issue. But because I can.

This year’s primary election marks the first time that California’s “top-two” primary system will allow voters to choose any candidate running for the state’s top offices. Voters not aligned with any political party get to vote for the candidate of their choice – without being forced to register with a political party. Yet it also allows Democrats to vote for Republicans, and Republicans to vote for Democrats.

That is an invitation for mischief. For example, I want Jerry Brown, who polls say will glide to victory in June, to face the weakest candidate possible in November. Hence my vote for Tim Donnelly, a tea-party radical, whom Brown will dispatch with little effort in the general election.

This bizarre concept of strategic voting is nothing new in other states – Rush Limbaugh famously dubbed a similar attempt by Republicans to manipulate the 2008 Democratic presidential primary "Operation Chaos.” Until the top-two primary, California was protected from these kinds of political high jinks. This year, however, political consultants are developing new opportunities to hijack our state’s electoral process.

These efforts are patterned on an effort two years ago, when now-embattled state Sen. Rod Wright faced a tough fight in the low-turnout June primary against a more progressive Democratic challenger, Paul Butterfield. Corporate interests who preferred Wright knew he would have a much more difficult battle in his heavily Democratic district if he faced another Democrat in November instead of a Republican. So they put all their marbles into a costly campaign to defeat Butterfield.

It worked. In the primary, Wright won 27 percent of the vote to Butterfield’s 16 percent, while the Republican, Charlotte Svolos, received 57 percent. When November came along, Wright routed the Republican as expected, winning 76 percent of the vote.

That race has set the stage for more manipulation this year. Corporate contributors – who have traditionally supported Republicans – are funneling campaign cash through independent expenditure committees to knock out progressive Democrats in key Legislative contests. Their goal? A win-win situation for them in November, where a business-friendly Democrat will face off against a business-friendly Republican.

Exhibit A is a Contra Costa County-based Assembly district, where the California Association of Realtors is dumping more than $1 million into an independent expenditure campaign to elect political consultant Steve Glazer and defeat union-backed teacher Tim Sbranti. The Realtors have never made serious contributions to Democratic candidates prior to this year’s elections. In fact, they were the driving force to win a Central Valley Senate seat last year that led to the loss of the Senate’s Democratic supermajority.

Examples of potential electoral manipulation extend to both sides of the ideological divide. Nobody knows why three Democrats pulled papers to run in Congressional District 4 and then failed to turn them in. But conservative Rep. Tom McClintock is rightfully suspicious that there may have been collusion to allow his moderate Republican opponent a chance to advance to November instead of one of the Democrats.

Meanwhile, McClintock himself is employing mischief. He has sent mailers to Democratic voters backhandedly trying to get their support for a little-known independent candidate. This effort is designed to draw votes away from a moderate Republican expected to give McClintock a fierce battle in November by also attracting Democratic and independent voters, as well as those that don’t align with McClintock’s ultra-right philosophy.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the top-two primary is when voters are denied a voice even without special interests trying to manipulate the process. That happened in 2012, when no Democrat advanced to November in the Riverside area’s 31st Congressional District. In that case, two Republicans split the GOP vote, while four Democrats divvied up the Democratic vote. Even though Democrats were 49 percent of the voters in the district, only the two Republicans survived and made it to the November election.

A similar situation may be developing in West Los Angeles this year. Congressional District 33, being vacated by Rep. Henry Waxman, is one of the most liberal in the state. Yet it is possible that no Democrat will advance to November. Eighteen candidates have filed, including 10 Democrats, three Republicans, two minor-party candidates and three independents.

Of course, the top-two primary has other downsides: banning write-in candidates in November, essentially blocking smaller political parties from having any voice in the fall, and forcing partisans to choose between the lesser of two evils when no candidate of their party is on the ballot.

But few expected the top-two to invite this kind of bedlam.

At a recent UC Berkeley conference, Democratic pollster Ben Tulchin said the top-two was “good for the business of political consultants and pollsters.” In a few weeks, we’ll know the price everyone else ends up paying.


Steve Maviglio is a Democratic strategist and a former deputy chief of staff in the California Assembly. Maviglio is working for a campaign that is attacking Steve Glazer.

Read more articles by Steve Maviglio



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