“Top Two” primaries: Propaganda vs. truth

By Craig McDermott, crossposted from Random Musings

It’s baaaack.

“It” referring to the “Top Two” primary proposal.

In 2012, Arizona voters soundly defeated a proposal to change Arizona’s primary election system so that the two top vote-getters each currently-partisan race would go on to the general election, regardless of partisan affiliation.

As of this writing, there is no record on the AZSOS’ website of such a proposal being in the works for the 2016 election, but Jackie Salit, who fronted the scheme in 2012 and is still out pushing it, had an op-ed piece published in the Arizona Republic in late June.

Note: AZBlueMeanie at Blog for Arizona has a response to Salit’s piece here.

The stated goal of the scheme was/is to both reduce the effects of partisanship in the electoral process and to increase voter participation because more non-affiliated voters would participate.

The method was approved by voters in California in 2010 to cover elections in 2012 and beyond.

And if the stated goals are used as a measuring stick, it is an abject failure.

While the measure has caused an upheaval in certain district races (basically, two minority party candidates making it to the general election in a district dominated by the other major party because there were so many candidates from the majority party that the vote was diluted), no non-major party candidate (meaning Democratic or Republican) has won a general election race.  In fact, only one non-major party candidate has even exceeded 40% of the vote in a general election race.

It hasn’t even impacted voter turnout.

California’s general election turnout figures, since 1992 –

Year Turnout %
1992 75.32
1994 60.45
1996 65.53
1998 57.59
2000 70.94
2002 50.57
2004 76.04
2006 56.19
2008 79.42
2010 59.59
2012 72.36
2014 42.20

 

In chart form (visuals really help when looking at things like this 🙂 ) –

 

 

 

 

 

 

As you can see from the chart, California’s voter turnout has been trending downward for the last quarter-century.  While there have been upticks in presidential election years (a marked uptick in 2008), the overall trend has been almost inexorably downward.  2014 saw a record low turnout, but “Top Two” may not be the proximate cause of that – the overall trend was downward before the implementation of “Top Two”.

On the other hand, it sure as hell didn’t slow the decline.

Well, maybe it had an impact in turnout in primary elections.  The turnout figures for California’s primary elections, since 1992 –

Year Turnout %
1992 47.46
1994 35.05
1996 41.88
1998 42.49
2000 53.88
2002 34.59
2004 44.21
2006 33.63
2008 28.22
2010 33.31
2012 31.06
2014 25.17

 

In chart form –

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Let me be clear, I have no problem with and would support true election reforms that result in reduced apathy and increase participation on the part of voters.

However, “top two” isn’t one such “reform”.

Some people, such as Salit, might argue that partisans exercise an outsized influence on American politics.

Some people, such as me, believe that the group with an outsized influence on American politics is a group that Salit purports to represent, the apathetics.  By not “showing up”, by not participating in a major part of civil society, they help to elect bad politicians.

And increasing the influence of that group would not serve to improve America’s political culture.

 

Supporters of the scheme, such as the editorial board of the LA Times, argue that there hasn’t been enough time to see if “top two” works, but that if we keep using the method, it will eventually work.

Kind of the same thing said by proponents of never-ending tax cuts for corporations and 1%ers (aka – “tinkle-down economics”).

 

California’s election data can be found here.

12 responses to ““Top Two” primaries: Propaganda vs. truth

  1. And why do you suggest that? Is that why I have a full time Latino Outreach Coordinator in our campaign?

  2. To be clear, you are not stating accurately the intended outcomes of this reform. As much as we all agree that more people should cast informed votes, and will work diligently to promote that outcome, that is not the specific outcome we seek with primary election reform. (Although, I do think a more careful study of the impact of Top 2 in California would be to find out the turnout statistics in PRIMARY elections of independent voters. I don’t happen to know what the situation was in California prior to 2010, but in Arizona, independents have to jump through extra hoops to vote using early ballot, which is the single greatest factor in turnout here, so the independent turnout is much lower than partisan voters in the primary. We think that should change with Top 2 if they are treated the same as all voters for early balloting.)

    Now, let’s turn to the real outcome we are seeking: better lawmaking. By better lawmaking, I mean elected representatives who work with other elected representatives to solve problems that matter to voters. And that matter to ALL voters, not just the narrow base of partisan that elected them in a primary. (That is what happens today.) In California, since Top 2, you are seeing more bi-partisan co-sponsored legislation and more bi-partisan coalitions forming to address issues. If you are still unsure of whether there has been enough change in such a short time, check out Nebraska. They have elected their legislature through nonpartisan elections since the 1930s. They don’t even have party caucuses in their one legislative chamber. Instead, they have issue caucuses that members, regardless of party, join to work on the issues important to them. And that is probably why the Nebraska legislature, which is 70% Republican, last month became the first “red state” legislature in the US to overturn the death penalty.

    So, if you focus on the right outcomes that matter to advocates of reform, you will see that a primary election designed to elect people who serve ALL the people, not just a party, is more fair and gets the results that matter to the people in our democracy. That can be our future in Arizona.

    • Donna Gratehouse

      “In California, since Top 2, you are seeing more bi-partisan co-sponsored legislation and more bi-partisan coalitions forming to address issues.”

      So what? There’s nothing inherently good or bad about partisanship or bipartisanship. It all depends on what the issue is. Bad trade deals, the Iraq invasion, and the Bush tax cuts were all bipartisan. The Affordable Care act was partisan. The Medicaid expansion in AZ was a bipartisan affair. In CA the bipartisan coalitions you speak of are for things like fracking, which are not necessarily desired by the electorate. I really don’t understand why some people (yourself included) seem to have made such a fetish out of bipartisanship. It doesn’t make any sense to me.

      Also Patrick, if there are really all these “independent” voters here who want pragmatic solutions then what happened in 2014? Fred DuVal, Terry Goddard, Felecia Rotellini, and David Garcia were the very personifications of all the qualities you say these voters want. Not a fire-breathing lefty in the bunch and all of them went out of their way to assure voters that they would work across the aisle. Did these disengaged “independent” voters you talk to all the time shun the entire Democratic slate because of the “D” by their names?

      • I am not suggesting that bi-partisanship automatically creates “better” laws. Plenty of other variables are at play in public policy making to influence the outcome of any legislation. But the record in Arizona is clear: when one party dominates the process year after year, and the elections that put the members of that party into office are involving a shrinking and less representative segment of the public, bi-partisanship disappears and legislation that responds to a tiny fraction of the public is the result. Is it possible that the same or similar legislation could pass in a system like we propose? Sure – special interests can find other ways of winning. But it is our belief that when elected officials are required to face ALL of the voters in EVERY election, they will have more incentives to address issues in a manner that appeals to all voters, not just those in their party. Anyone who believes that this kind of lawmaking is better for the public would surely see why a so-called “moderate” would have a better chance in this system than the current system.

        An example: do we need comprehensive immigration reform? Many Democrats believe so. Many believe it will help us resolve this complex and troubling issue, and it is especially pertinent to us in Arizona. That is presumably why John McCain led a bi-partisan effort to enact such reform. Why didn’t it move forward? It was stopped in the hyper-partisan House, where Republicans see no advantage to solving this issue, but only partisan advantages in keeping the “hot” controversy of immigration alive. But at least Sen. McCain tried to do what he saw as the right thing. How did his own party respond? They censured him. And of course we know he is facing opposition in primary now in 2016 because he is not “Republican” enough. McCain’s stature probably ensures that he can withstand an intra-party contest, as he did in 2010, but for many lawmakers, in Congress and at the state level, they are unwilling to risk their chances of drawing an extremist candidate if they try to work across the aisle on issues.

        If you believe that having a D by the name is an automatic “pass” or having a R by the name is an automatic “pass”, then of course this reform means nothing to you. But if you believe, as a majority of voters do, that they should vote for the person, not the party, then this reform makes complete sense.

        • Donna Gratehouse

          “If you believe that having a D by the name is an automatic “pass” or having a R by the name is an automatic “pass”, then of course this reform means nothing to you. But if you believe, as a majority of voters do, that they should vote for the person, not the party, then this reform makes complete sense.”

          Then, I must ask once again, why did those disaffected “independents” reject the entire Democratic slate in 2014? What you just said there was not an answer to that.

    • Donna Gratehouse

      And here are Nebraska’s abortion laws.

      http://www.prochoiceamerica.org/government-and-you/state-governments/state-profiles/nebraska.html

      No bastion of moderation there.

    • Donna responded far more eloquently than I could have, so I will keep this short. To address a couple of your specific points:

      1. I requested a breakdown of voter figures by partisan affiliation/non-affiliation from the California Secretary of State’s office; they have yet to get back to me.

      2. Given the overall trend of declining voter turnout there, primary and general election alike, if, as you imply, there was an increase in independent voter turnout, that means there was a precipitous drop in partisan turnout because of “top two”. Based on my knowledge of partisan turnout, that seems rather unlikely.

      3. In regards to lawmaking, there is nothing in top two that encourages the crafting of good laws.

      4. Nebraska as an example of “non-partisanship” because legislators there don’t declare their partisan affiliation when running? That’s like saying that I’m not a Red Sox fan because I don’t have a Red Sox T-shirt on right now.

      • Donna Gratehouse

        Thanks, Craig. The only thing I’d to your analysis is that when I asked Paul Johnson back in 2012 why Louisiana wasn’t an exemplar of sober, moderate government (in reality, it is very similar to us legislature-wise and the Democrats are so demolished there that they haven’t even contested recent statewide races) despite having had a top two primary since 1976. Mr. Johnson responded that I shouldn’t compare the AZ Open Government initiative (that year’s incarnation) to Louisiana’s system because….wait for it…Louisiana’s primary system was nonpartisan! The measure they were offering in 2012 was better precisely (according to Johnson) because candidates would have the option of using party labels.

        And now the “improvement” is to make it more like the Louisiana system, which has thus far failed miserably at molding that state into Centrist Utopia. Goalposts, moved.

      • On points 1 and 2, I don’t know what the statistics are, and without data, I do not claim to know that independents are voting at a higher rate or not. If you obtain the data, it would be great to know. It could be that the proportion of ALL voters, regardless of party, is dropping at the same rate. That is probably driven by other factors, like the disgust of all voters with the influence of money, especially dark money, and the extremely negative advertising it produces, which in my opinion, is driving voters away from the polls. But we also do not know that for sure, and there are many factors for the declining turnout for sure.

        But all of this focus on turnout belies the fact that in Arizona, with today’s system, independents are not treated the same as partisan voters for the primary election. And when the primary election decides 90 percent of state legislative races, and more than 90 percent of races in Congress, the participation of voters in the primary election is critical to having any chance of a meaningful democracy. This is a basic issue of fairness. Let all voters participate equally in the primary election. End of story.

        • Donna Gratehouse

          “But all of this focus on turnout belies the fact that in Arizona, with today’s system, independents are not treated the same as partisan voters for the primary election. And when the primary election decides 90 percent of state legislative races, and more than 90 percent of races in Congress, the participation of voters in the primary election is critical to having any chance of a meaningful democracy. This is a basic issue of fairness. Let all voters participate equally in the primary election. End of story.”

          And I doubt if you sold this truthfully to “independent” voters as a measure that changes the GENERAL election to one where they would be faced with two, and only, two choices and both could be of the same party or philosophy I doubt you’d get many takers. Top Two Primary is a misnomer because the major change this makes is to the general election, when most people actually vote. This does the exact opposite of what you claim it does. It restricts choice. It does not expand it.

  3. This looks like a way to stop the far right ;but it really wants to stop militant hispanic voters in about 7 years.

    • I really take offense at the suggestion that reformers want to interfere with Hispanic voters. More than half of Hispanic voters are independents. And yet independents have to jump through extra hoops to participate in a primary election. Thus the turnout is pathetic. That means that treating independents unequally is, in effect, a Hispanic voter suppression device. Our reform would change that. All primary voters get the same ballot and follow the same rules, meaning half of Hispanics are not treated differently, at least in regard to this aspect of voting. And if, as national data suggest, independent Hispanics lean significantly Democrat, then making it easier to get these Democrat-leaning Hispanic independents to vote should be a good thing if you believe more Hispanics should participate. That is why we have a strategy to specifically reach out to Hispanic voters and urge their support for reform.