Callaghan: Top two primary system not as bad, or good, as predicted

By Peter Callaghan, Columbian Syndicated Columnist

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I know, we should consider it a compliment.

Imitation, after all, is the highest form of flattery. And California knowingly imitated us two years ago when its voters adopted an initiative creating a top two primary election. Voters there get a first taste of the new primary June 5.

I should say, “Welcome aboard.” Instead, I worry. The last time California voters copied our primary, they spoiled it for everyone.

Washington had used the blanket primary for 70 years without anyone taking much notice. We could hopscotch down the primary ballot, voting for a Democrat for one office and a Republican for another. We could even vote Libertarian or Natural Law Party if the mood struck.

In the blanket, the Republican and Democrat with the most votes moved on to the general election. Minor party candidates who attracted at least 1 percent of the vote moved on as well.

But after a big fish like California adopted the blanket, the political parties sued and the U.S. Supreme Court found it unconstitutional. Parties have a right to control who votes in primaries that select the party nominee, the court ruled.

Lawmakers here adopted top two as a replacement. But through a sneaky ploy, that language was vetoed by then-Gov. Gary Locke, leaving behind the unpopular pick-a-party primary that was supposed to be only a backup should the courts strike down top two as well.

It was a reaction to that ploy and unhappiness with two elections of having to use either a Republican ballot or a Democrat ballot that likely led voters to overwhelmingly adopt the top two initiative in 2004. The U.S. Supreme Court approved four years later.

How’s it working?

How has the new system worked out? Not bad, said Western Washington University political scientist Todd Donovan in his study for the California Journal of Politics & Policy. That is, as long as you discount the predictions made by top two proponents and opponents.

Top two might be responsible for a slight increase in voter turnout, Donovan found. But there is no evidence that it helped elect more moderate legislators or reduced legislative gridlock, as some backers predicted.

“Washington had a reputation for electing moderates and ‘mavericks’ prior to adoption of the top two system,” Donovan wrote. “This propensity might reflect the state’s long history with the blanket primary, the lack of partisan registration, and adoption of a bipartisan redistricting commission in 1983.”

Donovan noted the weak effects of top two on altering the political landscape. It could be that more time is needed to see change, but it also could be that more powerful forces might be at work to increase partisanship. One is the need of candidates to appeal to active constituent groups and big donors who tend to be on the political extremes.

Predictions by opponents were no more accurate. Warnings that up to one-third of general elections could have two finalists from the same party were overstated, he wrote. Instead, such intraparty general elections resulted between 5 and 7 percent of the time.

One prediction by opponents was accurate: Top two has not been kind to third parties, who have rarely reached the general election. Maybe that should have dawned on the Libertarians before they joined Democrats and Republicans in killing the blanket primary.

In the end, despite the 2004 campaign rhetoric, Washington voters seem to have supported top two not for what it was but for what it wasn’t. They supported it because it wasn’t the choice of the political parties or, as described in the voters pamphlet, “the state party bosses.”

The effects of top two could be more dramatic in California.

“California’s change from a closed primary system to a top two system may be more consequential than Washington’s because it may represent a more fundamental departure from the state’s status quo electoral context,” Donovan wrote.

“ But the change would have to have far greater effects on candidates and the electorate in California if it is to alter the party system in the legislature.”