Dan Walters

Opinion: California’s ‘top-two’ primary has major impact

Sponsors for the “top-two” primary election system were moderate Republicans, such as wealthy physicist Charles Munger Jr., right, who wanted to pull their party to the center, and business interests, who wanted more moderate Democratic legislators to counter liberal groups such as unions and environmental activists.
Sponsors for the “top-two” primary election system were moderate Republicans, such as wealthy physicist Charles Munger Jr., right, who wanted to pull their party to the center, and business interests, who wanted more moderate Democratic legislators to counter liberal groups such as unions and environmental activists. AP

This year was the second cycle of California’s experiment with the “top-two” primary election system, under which all candidates appear on the same ballot and the No. 1 and No. 2 vote-getters, regardless of party, face each other in the November election.

The reviews in academic and political circles have been uniformly negative, contending that the system has failed to reduce partisan and ideological polarization, as promised by its backers.

Voters bought into that pitch, approved the top-two system for the Legislature and other state offices and later extended it to Congress. But it was only a tangential goal for those who provided the wherewithal to sell it to voters.

Its sponsors were, in the main, moderate Republicans such as wealthy physicist Charles Munger Jr., who wanted to pull their party to the center, and business interests, who wanted more moderate Democratic legislators to counter liberal groups such as unions and environmental activists.

That’s one reason why outside analysts of top-two’s impacts miss the point. They’ve focused on its effects on congressional seats, which have been minimal, rather than on the Legislature, where effects, accelerated by term limits, are quite noticeable, especially on bills that business interests deem unacceptable.

The effects are not glaring in the records of floor votes that interest groups assemble to judge which legislators are sympathetic or hostile to their causes, but are evident in the nitty-gritty work on specific bills.

Bills often disappear without formal votes, especially in the appropriations committees of both houses, or are amended enough to change their bottom-line impacts, and that’s where the top-two primary system is paying off for its business advocates.

It’s noteworthy that even though the Legislature has a very liberal ambiance, the California Chamber of Commerce and other business groups have been remarkably successful in killing, sidetracking or changing bills that they dislike the most, which the chamber terms “job killers.”

And that explains why the aforementioned liberal interests, which also include personal-injury lawyers and consumer advocates, intensely dislike the top-two system. They stand much better chances of electing more compatible Democrats under the old closed primary system in which handpicked candidates that win nomination in a Democratic June primary would be guaranteed election in November.

It also explains why right-wing Republicans also dislike the top-two primary. Like liberal groups, they also see it as diluting their dominance of primaries.

And it explains why both political parties strenuously opposed – successfully – the adoption of a top-two system in Oregon this year.

The top-two system is not a panacea for political dysfunction. But it’s dead wrong to say it isn’t working as truly intended.

Call The Bee’s Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, sacbee.com/dan-walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.

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