State Sen. Abel Maldonado, a Republican legislator from the
Central Coast, had the Democrats over a budget barrel and extracted from them
the ultimate insider's deal -- they would put three of his pet ideas on the
2010 ballot (as constitutional amendments) in return for his deciding vote on
the budget. You have to admire Maldonado's moxie even as you're appalled at
this latest example of how broken the legislative process in Sacramento has become.
So what was on the senator's personal wish list? Two of the measures relate to
curbing legislators' pay; the third would install a "top-two" primary
system in California.
Maldonado likes to call this an "open primary," but that's just for
propaganda purposes. As political scientists understand these matters, an open
primary is one in which voters can vote in the primary of any party they wish,
but only in that party's primary for all races on the ballot. Then the primary
winner for each party appears on the November ballot in a multiparty,
That's different from what's called a "blanket primary," which California used in the
1990s until a U.S. Supreme Court decision led to its abolition. Under this
scheme, voters select a candidate from any party in each race, and all parties'
primary winners appear on the November ballot. But the court ruled that because
primaries are a political party's private affair, they cannot be forced to use
a blanket primary. California's
parties opted out of the blanket primary.
Maldonado's top-two primary is different still. Under his method, the nominees
from all political parties, including multiple candidates from the same party,
compete against each other in a single primary free-for-all. Only the top two
finishers overall advance to the November election. Those two final candidates
could be from the same political party, and rarely are they from a third party
or an independent candidate.
Proponents of the top-two primary say it will give voters
more choice, create more competition, elect more moderate legislators and guard
against spoiler candidates. But will it deliver?
A top-two primary certainly would give voters more choice during the primary
election, but it would reduce voters' choices in the November election -- to
only two candidates, no matter how many parties put up how many candidates in
the primary. That means in the general election, which is when most voters
participate, the ballot will contain a dramatically reduced field.
But that's not all. In a very liberal district, say an urban area like Los Angeles, the top two
candidates in November likely would be two Democrats; in a conservative
district, the top two probably would be Republicans. Third-party candidates and
independents almost never would appear on the November ballot. Once again,
choice is reduced.
To understand if the top-two primary plan might result in more competitive
races, I examined elections in the state of Washington, which used the top-two primary
for its 2008 state legislative elections. Here's what I found:
With 98 state House races, only five were won by a competitive margin (defined
as a 4-percentage-point difference between the top two candidates). Sixty-five
races (66%) were won by landslide margins of 20 points or higher. In the 26
state Senate races, the results were very similar, with 62% won by landslides
and only two races fitting into the competitive category. That's a level of
competition that hasn't changed much from past Washington
results, and is no better than what we have now in California.
In terms of electing more moderates, the Washington
elections were a failure. The term "moderate" is a relative one, with
different definitions from state to state, so a better way to examine this is
to look for how many opportunities were available for moderates to get elected.
One way to do that is to see how often the system pitted two Democrats against
each other in November, or two Republicans, so that the voters from the other
party could act as a moderating influence against either the most conservative
Republican or the most liberal Democrat.
House races, only six out of 98 (6%) had two candidates from the same party,
and in the Senate, two out of 26 races (8%) did. So in only a handful of races
did moderates have an improved opportunity to get elected.
On a positive note, for the handful of races in Washington decided by competitive margins,
candidates didn't have to worry about spoiler third-party candidates. But is
essentially banning third parties from participating in November elections
really the best way to achieve this? A better way would be to use "instant
runoff" voting, under which you could rank a first, second and third
choice from among all comers, and, if your first choice doesn't win, your vote
goes to your second choice as your "runoff" vote. This would rule out
spoiler candidates but would preserve voters' choices.
Results from Washington
state's elections show that a top-two primary did not result in more
competition or many opportunities for moderate candidates to get elected. It
gave voters more choice in the primary, but at the cost of reducing their
choices in the November election. The winners won by majorities and it got rid
of the spoiler problem, but at the price of greatly restricting third parties
from the November ballot.
When it comes to reform, be careful what you ask for.