Will California’s ‘Top Two’ Primary Work?
California voters on Tuesday approved Proposition 14, which replaces traditional partisan primaries in state and Congressional races. Starting in 2011, candidates for an office would be on a single ballot, regardless of political affiliation, and the top two vote-getters (even if from the same party) would advance to the general election. In recent years, a similar “top two” primary system was adopted in Washington State.
If this measure survives legal challenges, whom will it benefit? If the idea spreads to more states, what effect will this system have nationally? What races would it affect most?
- Peter Schrag, former Sacramento Bee columnist
- Dan Schnur, California Fair Political Practices Commission
- Steven Greenhut, author of “Plunder!”
- Travis N. Ridout, political scientist, Washington State University
- Barbara Sinclair, political scientist
- John J. Pitney Jr., professor of American politics
Embracing Another Gimmick
Steven Greenhut is the director of the Pacific Research Institute’s Cal Watchdog journalism center and the author of “Plunder! How Public Employee Unions Are Raiding Treasuries, Controlling Our Lives And Bankrupting the Nation.”
California’s Proposition 14 is the latest fantasy-world reform that some Californians — especially those in the business community — believe will restore the deficit-plagued state to fiscal health by changing the type of legislators elected to office.
The problem with Prop 14 is that California can’t fix itself without tough fights and tough choices.
It’s true that Democratic primary voters tilt left and Republican primary voters tilt right and that leads to general-election choices that strike some people as too extreme. But there’s something disturbing about instituting an election reform to elect a specific type of candidate, in this case more “moderates.”
Under Prop 14, the top two vote-getters in the primary advance to the general election regardless of their party affiliation. This now-passed reform will reduce debate and destroy the relevance of third parties at a time when the state needs more input from various sources outside of the mainstream. Because third party candidates will rarely if ever reach the top two in the primary, those candidates and their ideas will not be heard on the campaign trail.
Results from Washington State and Louisiana, which embraced similar voting systems, cast doubt on the idea that more moderates necessarily get elected to office. But even if such a system works as designed, that’s not a good thing. The moderate candidates who champion the top-two primary — Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado, former (and recalled) Gov. Gray Davis — had ample opportunity to fix the state, yet their ideas and approach have been found lacking.
California needs politicians in the model of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who will take on public employee unions and cut back on spending. Gimmicks are the preferences of those who believe that California can fix itself without tough fights and tough choices. It can’t be done. Proposition 14’s passage suggests the state’s voters don’t yet grasp that point.