When Clark County voters open their primary ballots next month (the ballots will be mailed on July 18), they will gaze upon the envy of an increasing number of Americans. Only four states (so far) are privileged to use a top two primary, which advances the top two vote-getters to the general election regardless of party affiliation.This will be Washington's fifth top two primary, starting in 2008. We predict the number will grow from just four states, especially if the rest of the nation takes note of what happened last week in California. The June 5 primary marked the first time Californians had used a top two primary, which was one of two election reforms approved by voters in 2010. (The other was to take redistricting out of the hands of legislators, once again following the better example provided by Washington state).
One of many advantages of the top two primary is the accelerated pressure it often applies to incumbents. Such heightened accountability is good for both the elected officials and voters. This was shown last week in California's 13th Congressional District (east of San Francisco Bay). Here's how the action was described by Bay Area News Group: "That extremely safe Democratic district now has Democrat Eric Swalwell nipping at the heels of 20-term incumbent Rep. Pete Stark, D-Fremont, after besting a conservative independent in (the June 5) primary. In an ordinary primary, Stark would've won, a Republican nominee would've had no chance, and the race essentially would be over."
And here's how that action was viewed by Abel Maldonado, who was a state senator in 2010 when he helped design the state's top two primary: "Mr. Stark cannot kick back and relax. He's got to campaign, he's got to keep talking to the people in that district … that's good for that area. I can guarantee you that the candidate who wins that district will be the one who can communicate with some Republicans and independents, and that person's voice will be a voice of reason and he will go on to victory." Thus, a victory not only for the politician, but for the people who will behold a more competitive race that reaches out to voters of all political persuasions.
Bay Area News Group also quoted Darry Sragow, a Democratic strategist who founded No Labels, a nonpartisan nonprofit. Sragow said what's happening in California is "part of a process that is beginning to pick up speed, that reflects a lot of voters and a number of political insiders who are incredibly frustrated with gridlock in government and are in a variety of ways trying to crack the system open."
For the record, California's inaugural top two primary produced two Democratic finalists or two Republican finalists in only one-sixth of the legislative and Congressional races; 18 involve Democrats, eight feature Republicans. But what's more significant than any partisan nuances in this issue is the enhanced power of the people. Voters are getting more of what they want, and politicians are being held more accountable. Critics of the top two primary are still around, and some of their points are valid. But the net positive of adopting the top two primary is made manifest in ways that will appeal to many other states.