Sorry E. J., the Top Two Primary is still a bad idea

I was a bit surprised to see Arizona Republic columnist E. J. Montini mildly join his fellow columnist Laurie Roberts, who is the head cheerleader for a top-two primary (aka jungle primary) in Arizona. I always thought of him as the thoughtful intelligent one at The RepublicArizonans losing the war of Independents:

StopTop2[Chris Herstam, a former Republican legislator]  told me, “Our political system is rigged. Even as their numbers dwindle, the two major parties refuse to change our state laws that would provide a level playing field for Independent candidates. Independents now outnumber Republicans and Democrats. Why should the two party primaries be subsidized by government taxes raised from many Arizonans who want nothing to do with party organizations? The time for a single nonpartisan open primary has come.”

If that were to happen and Arizona went to nonpartisan open primaries a person like Murphy would have a fighting chance. And if independent voters banned together as a unified voting block they’d have the clout to actually make it happen.

But they won’t.

Mostly because they’re just so darned … independent.

Before The Arizona Republic tries to lead this state down the primrose path again to another bad political fad from California, perhaps it would be a good idea to actually hear from someone about the California experience with the “jungle primary.”

Here is Seema Mehta and Jean Merl in the Los Angeles Times. Top-two primary might be bad for small-party candidates:

When California voters decided to change the way the state’s primary elections work, the move was cast as an effort to moderate a state Capitol gripped by polarization.

If the top two vote-getters in a primary faced off against one another in November regardless of their party affiliation, the reasoning went, hard-nosed politicians who typically put party purity above all else would be forced to court less partisan voters. That could mean more centrists elected to office, more political compromise and better governance.

But with the approach of only the second election since the enactment of the “jungle” primary — the first featuring candidates for statewide office — some argue that the change has had a decidedly undemocratic effect, muzzling the voices of small-party candidates.

The Green Party, the American Independent Party and other minor groups will now rarely — if ever — appear on the general election ballot, even though they represent 1.2 million people. And they could eventually find themselves out of existence in California, the critics fear.

“It’s just a violation of voting rights,” said Richard Winger, a Libertarian and publisher of the San Francisco-based Ballot Access News. “Because the right to vote includes the right of the choice.”

* * *

Membership outside the Democratic and Republican parties and among those who state no party preference is admittedly a sliver of California’s electorate. And every party has equal footing — at least theoretically — in the current primary system, which voters approved in 2010 for all races except presidential contests.

But already, far fewer third-party candidates have been able to qualify for the general election ballot.

In June 2012, with more than 150 races taking place under rules being applied for the first time, only three minor-party candidates made it to November. This year, no third-party candidate is likely to appear on the fall ballot for governor, attorney general or other high office.

It is more costly now for small parties to place a candidate on the ballot. Previously, Democratic or Republican candidates for statewide office had to pay a filing fee of $2,610 to $3,480 or gather the signatures of 10,000 registered voters to make the cut. But members of smaller parties were allotted a sharp discount and needed only as many as 150 signatures to avoid the fee.

This resulted in a plethora of candidates qualifying for the ballot. In 2010, 33 candidates representing smaller parties ran for statewide office, from the Green, Libertarian, Peace and Freedom, and American Independent parties. Because of closed party nominations, each party was guaranteed a spot on the November ballot.

This year, the filing fees are the same but there are no discounts for small parties. Now, there are only 10 candidates for statewide office from seven minor parties. And barring a major upheaval, none will proceed past the June primary because most Californians still vote for Democrats or Republicans.

There’s no question that the minor parties are disadvantaged by the top-two rule,” said Richard Hasen, a law professor at UC Irvine who specializes in elections.

By contrast, candidates who do not register with a political party have benefited from the change. In the 2010 California primary, all candidates for statewide office had a party affiliation; this year, there are eight who state no party preference.

[Unlike in California, no “independent” has ever been elected to a statewide or legislative office in Arizona.]

* * *

The Green, Libertarian, and Peace and Freedom parties are pressing a lawsuit on appeal in state court alleging disenfranchisement and other harms, with a new argument filed April 3. And an Assembly bill that would reduce the level of support required for a minority-party candidate to be recognized by the state will be the subject of an upcoming hearing.

Some who supported the new primary rules are unmoved, arguing that their effort was aimed at helping voters, not political parties.

“Our position is about [improving things for] voters, not candidates,” said former Democratic state legislator Steve Peace, whose Independent Voter Project was instrumental in persuading voters to approve the new primary system.

He added that the proposition provided a measure of fairness. “Now the process is the same for every candidate — they are all treated equally.”

Other proponents of the primary overhaul said they never intended to punish small parties.

“Obviously, the need for third parties, smaller parties, to remain active participants is important; and as we implement this system, the need to make appropriate adjustments will become apparent as the system unfolds,” said Adam Mendelsohn, an advisor to former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the media strategist for the campaign to change primaries.

* * *

Experts say the effect of the jungle primary remains unknown, that most studies are inconclusive and complicated by the fact that the overhaul took place at the same time as the inauguration of independent redrawing of voting districts.

“It needs to run at least another cycle or two more before we can understand its effects, particularly on third-party candidates,” said Caltech political science professor R. Michael Alvarez, who is working on a study of the new system.

To paraphrase mothers the world over, “Just because California jumps off a bridge, are you going to do it?” Don’t be stupid.

3 responses to “Sorry E. J., the Top Two Primary is still a bad idea

  1. Thomas O'Neill

    As I recall there was a California district that was overwhelmingly Dem, but when they tried this system something like 7 Dems and 2 Repubs competed.
    Since the Dem split their votes, the 2 Repubs got higher pluralities and so the Dem district had to choose between 2 Repubs.

    We have party primaries for a reason.

  2. As “independents” who they vote for in every election and 99% of them will say only one party. Just because one claims to be an “independent” doesn’t mean they are one. This is the truth about “independents” and one the MSM doesn’t want to talk about. They would rather talk about the mythical “independent” that just doesn’t exist.

  3. Donna Gratehouse

    Also look at Louisiana. They’ve had a similar system since 1976 and have hardly become a bastion of moderation as a result of it. In 1991 David Duke (yes, that David Duke) secured a spot in the general election and in 2011 the Democrats did not field a single statewide candidate, from Governor on down. The Republicans were unchallenged for every seat. Some “choice” there.