This month, the California Journal of Politics and Policy released a hit job on the state’s system of nonpartisan top-two primaries.
The authors employ studies, surveys and sophisticated analyses to obfuscate their attacks and say it’s too early to draw conclusions, but their message and intentions ring clear: Top two is a dud. It has not produced moderate legislators, has not led to an increase of voter turnout and has not affected outcomes. It is misguided at best, detrimental at worst.
The fact is top-two primaries are working. Every voter in California can now participate in the first round of voting and is free to choose candidates from any party. Politicians have to (gasp) engage with voters outside their own parties from the get-go. The number of competitive election contests has increased.
The political parties are as strong and influential as they have ever been, with a big difference: Now, the parties are participants, not gatekeepers. They don’t get to decide who can and cannot vote in primaries and they don’t control the general election ballot.
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The online Journal of Politics and Policy study is seeking to draw attention away from this new power arrangement by asserting that top two is about outcomes, not voters. But the impact of top two in California cannot be seen using these criteria, but rather in the new freedom and power now vested with voters.
Now begins the challenging process of educating voters and motivating them to participate in ways that give expression to their new power.
Independentvoice.org, a California association of independent voters, found in a survey that 75 percent of decline-to-state voters are still unaware that they now have the right to vote in primaries. Don’t confuse having a system that empowers voters with having something to vote for.
I recently met with Congressman John Delaney, a Maryland Democrat who is working to build bipartisan consensus for an infrastructure bill, the Partnership to Build America Act. He has been methodically reaching out to both Democrats and Republicans to co-sponsor the bill.
The problem, he told me, is that most members of Congress won’t agree to add their name to a bill that has bipartisan support because they get elected in closed primaries. Privately, they tell him that they support the infrastructure bill. But they cannot support it publicly because it would leave them vulnerable to a primary challenge.
Last year, Delaney took the bull by the horns and introduced the Open Our Democracy Act to replace traditional partisan primaries with nonpartisan top-two primaries – the California model – for all congressional races. Delaney’s bill is an important initiative that deserves broad support.
Primary reform is not about moderation. It’s about something much more fundamental to the American experiment – the consent of the governed.
Political parties prefer election systems that maximize manageability and predictability. But the American people are not interested in making life easier for the political parties.
We are interested in making life better for our communities and our children and having a political system that is relevant and responsive. I would encourage the California Journal of Politics and Policy to study – better yet, support – that.
John Opdycke is president of Open Primaries, a national nonprofit working to enact and protect open and nonpartisan primaries.