Antidote to rancor: top two primary

By John Laird, Columbian Editorial Page Editor

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Last Thursday brought yet another carnival in the democratic process as Tea Partiers nationwide gathered to (1) “take our country back” — to what? some of us wondered — and (2) denounce the behavior of any liberal infiltrators as — get this — beneath the dignity of a Tea Party rally.

Whether you admire the Tea Partiers as true patriots or find their antics as comical as a demolition derby, you might be worrying about the partisan divide that’s growing in America today. Relax, I say. We aren’t the first Americans to scream at and threaten each other. By standards of the 1800s, we’re a bunch of pansies when it comes to political brawling, interruptive yelling and other forms of barbaric discourse.

Relax, also, because in our state one antidote to all this rancor waits just around the corner, on Aug. 17 to be exact, the date of our next top two primary. Unlike most states that have party primaries (nominating processes for the major parties), ours is a wide-open winnowing process that throws all candidates before all voters, with the top two vote-getters advancing.

The superiority of this system is based on the principle that there is never — ever — anything wrong with the top vote-getter winning an election, nor is there anything wrong with the top two vote-getters advancing from a top two primary to a general election. It is the absence of this virtuous principle that makes the Electoral College so nefarious. Our presidential election system harbors the sinister and un-American ability to declare a leading vote-getter to be a loser. (Ask Al Gore about 2000.) There’s also the potentially dangerous interference of a third candidate. (Ask George H.W. Bush about Ross Perot squeezing him out of a second term and helping rascal Bill Clinton win with 43 percent of the votes in 1992. That won’t happen after any top two primary because, well, it ain’t a top three primary.)

Reducing radical rancor

Top two primaries reduce partisan extremism by forcing candidates to appeal to all voters, especially independents, instead of courting the fringe wing-nuts, as we see in party primaries. Former Oregon secretary of state Phil Keisling, in a recent op-ed for The New York Times, listed the flaws of party primaries: “Abysmal voter turnout; incessant waves of shrill, partisan invective; and legions of pandering politicians making blatant appeals to party extremists … the real question isn’t why our politics are so dysfunctional — it’s how could they not be?”

Our state’s top two primary has survived scrutiny by the U.S. Supreme Court. It also inspired California’s Proposition 14 on the June 8 ballot, which Keisling claims is supported by 68 percent of Republicans and 71 percent of Democrats in California, according to one poll. Sadly for Oregon, a similar measure that Keisling helped write was rejected by voters in 2008.

The huffy complaint “Yikes! Voters might have to choose between two candidates from the same party in the general election!” is bogus on two counts. First, what’s wrong with that, even if it does happen? In 2008, it happened eight times in our state: five races in Western Washington where liberal districts advanced two Democrats to November, and three races in Eastern Washington where conservative districts advanced two Republicans. Makes sense to me. Second, it hardly ever happens anyway. That same year, each of the 116 other legislative races had one candidate from each party. In Clark County, among 14 races, not one race had two candidates of the same party. In other words, false alarm.

The Daily Breeze of Torrance, Calif., editorialized: “California’s political system is broken … The right wing blindly blocks attempts to raise new revenues through taxes. The left wing just as blindly protects organized labor and social programs with little regard for the fiscal cost.” A top two primary in California would help produce elected officials “who are more likely to make decisions based on what’s good for the public, not for the special interests or for their particular party.”

And if that doesn’t sit well with you, well, dangle the tea bags from your hat brim, paint some placards, limber up the larynx and head on down to the town square for some more hollerin’.

John Laird is The Columbian’s editorial page editor. His column of personal opinion appears each Sunday. Reach him at john.laird@columbian.com.