I can’t remember who said: if pro and con are opposites, and progress means to move forward, what does Congress mean?
That came to mind as I was considering two recent columns, ostensibly about political reform, which appeared recently in the New York Times. One was by Times columnist Thomas Friedman in which he advocates for instant runoff voting as a way to promote political innovation at the national level and address what Friedman calls a broken system of "hyperpartisanship." The other was an op-ed penned by one-time Oregon Secretary of State Phil Keisling where Keisling pushes the Louisiana-style “Top Two” election method. Friedman’s idea is a sensible one—progress. But Top Two is a giant step backwards. These two essays, printed days apart in the Times, represent Political Reform and what we might be tempted to call Political De-form.
The Top Two primary proposal is like the proverbial bad penny that keeps coming back despite being tossed away time and time again. Mr. Keisling’s efforts in Oregon have turned the former golden boy politician into a three time loser. His first effort to qualify a Top Two ballot initiative failed because it didn’t get enough signatures to get on the ballot. His second try, a legislative route, also failed. Then, Oregon voters decisively rejected his Top Two proposal in November 2008 by a 2-1 margin.
Top Two is often misleadingly referred to as an “open primary” which is actually an entirely different beast altogether. With Top Two, candidates from all parties run in one free-for-all primary. Only the top two candidates, regardless of party, advance to the general election. Top Two, as proposed in California, would radically restrict voters’ choices. Third party and independent candidates would be eliminated from the November ballot. In some places, voters might have only two Democrats on the ballot; in other places, only two Republicans.
Top Two also exacerbates the problem of spoiler candidates and vote-splitting. Let’s say there are ten candidates running for Governor. If eight of them are, say, moderate Republicans and two are wild eyed liberal Democrats, the moderate vote would be split at the primary and, in November, voters only choices would be from the far left.
The Friedman and Keisling pieces produced a rare “discussion” of election methods on the pages of the Times as they were followed by interesting letters produced by electoral activists and academics from across the country.