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Libertarian Chair on Top-Two Primary: ‘We Are Better With It Than Without It’

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Correction Update: The article originally said C. Michael Pickens is the chairman of the Libertarian Party. He is a former state chairman. The current chair is Steve Nielson. The article has been corrected.

Former Washington Libertarian Party (LPWA) Chairman C. Michael Pickens believes that the nonpartisan, top-two primary is the best system in the country to get Libertarians elected to office. Pickens cites recent successes party candidates have had in Washington state to make his point.

In most states, the primary process is dominated by political parties. Primary voters participate in taxpayer-funded primary elections where candidates are chosen to represent private political parties in the general election.

However, Washington state uses a nonpartisan, top-two primary similar to California. All candidates and voters participate on a single primary ballot and the top two vote-getters, regardless of party preference, move on to the general election.

In an interview for IVN, Pickens discussed the impact the nonpartisan system has had on the LPWA since it was first implemented in 2008, along with his optimism for the future.

According to Pickens, Libertarian leaders in Washington initially interpreted the top-two system as an effort to stifle the influence of third parties. However, he sees top two differently.

He explained that under more traditional partisan systems, Republican candidates typically attack Libertarian candidates, because if there is a Republican, a Democrat, and a Libertarian on the general election ballot, Republicans will accuse the Libertarian of siphoning votes from the GOP.

“They’re all going to the general election so the votes are being split,” Pickens said.

He argues that general election voters are essentially forced to choose between voting for their preferred candidate and voting for someone else strategically to avoid a worst-case scenario.

It is actually a benefit for us because people can vote the way they want in the primary.
C. Michael Pickens, chairman of Libertarian Party of Washington
“In Washington state (under top two), one of the strategies we use is we tell people they can vote their conscience in the primary,” Pickens said. “It is actually a benefit for us because people can vote the way they want in the primary.”

He further explained that as an added bonus, a third-party candidate no longer has to clear the staggering hurdle of placing first in a general election against a Democrat, a Republican, and perhaps others. Now, a second place finish in the primary is good enough to move on to a contest against just one opponent.

These benefits are not just theoretical, either. Pickens said that after the LPWA shifted its focus in how it recruited candidates and running solid campaigns, the party ran 12 candidates in 2014, 8 of whom made it to the general election. The elections resulted in the highest vote totals in LPWA history.

Further, the party continues to solidify its infrastructure across the state. In 2015, the party fielded 17 candidates, 5 of whom won in local races. The LPWA more than doubled its elected representation from 4 to 9.

“Now we have 23 candidates lined up to run right now that are confirmed and I think 9 potential candidates,” Pickens added.

While minor party challenges to top two have diminished in Washington state, they still exist in California, where some party leaders have encouraged their members not to vote in the general election in some races out of protest against the nonpartisan system.

Opponents of top two argue that it diminishes voter choice, restricting options available to voters in the general election when the most people historically participate. With limited voter support, third parties have a tough hurdle to clear to get to the November election under top two.

In response, Pickens says that party leaders should spend less time squabbling over procedure and more time where it counts – campaigning and getting people to the polls.

“The bottom line is third parties have to go to work,” he said. “If we can’t get second place in a primary, we’re never going to be able to get first place in the general.”

For Pickens, this means going door-to-door, putting up door hangers, and other traditional forms of advertising and campaigning that he says is working for the party now that they have built up a solid infrastructure in the state.

Pickens says there are alternative voting methods and election systems that he would prefer, such as ranked-choice voting and the use of multi-member districts with proportional representation. However, he says top-two is an improvement from what Washington state used to have and was even one of his motivations to move to the state.

“I think we have the best system in the country to get Libertarians elected,” Pickens concluded. “If we can get a Libertarian elected to state office, we can actually do a whole lot more around the country, because that will give other people permission, and motivation, and inspiration that maybe they can do that in their state.”

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27 comments
Nick Openbrier
Nick Openbrier

Rand Paul live feed on Facebook NOW. Just type in "Rand Paul" at the top of Facebook's "Search". And then click on it. See why Liberty and Freedom for all people is on fire. Freedom unites all people despite differences, which is what this country needs most. To come together, not be divided. We need less government in our lives, not more. "When the People fear government, there is tyranny; but when the government fears the People, there is Liberty"

Sheri Scott
Sheri Scott

Then they wouldn t have their gang of thugs to help them out.

Scot Beattie
Scot Beattie

Do away with caucuses and go to straight mail in ballots for whatever parties are supporting candidates in the primaries. Anything else is crap.

Ryan A Hall
Ryan A Hall

I think the top two scheme is actually harmful for democracy, actually. Let's say you have one party with only two people running in their primary, and the other party with five people running. 500000 people vote. Even if more people end up voting in the Republican primary, by virtue of splitting the voting from more choices, only the top two Democrats move on. It's silly really.

Robert Weber
Robert Weber

AGAIN...... the Constitution says who is a legal citizen and whom can vote ...Amendment XIV section 1 and Amendment XV section 1. " ONE LEGAL CITIZEN, ONE LEGAL VOTE" ...... Any system to disadvantage a legal Citizen for voting Their Choice is against the law. Has been politicised since the very first " two Party" controls placed on the populous and made to PAY for their process......

Gale Ann Molinari
Gale Ann Molinari

The entire electoral system needs an overhaul it is so antiquated that it really doesn't represent the people.

Steven Fowler
Steven Fowler

Wrong on so many levels it can best be described as STUPID. If you think the current election process is full of undocumented illegal activity implement this idiotic strategy and we'll have a much bigger mess than we have now.

Will Johnson
Will Johnson

Since they say YOU have no Voice if you do not vote, then you vote to ABSTAIN from this "system" of governance or "mental" construct!

Will Johnson
Will Johnson

I "Choose" to VOTE in order to "NOT" vote!

Brian Shank
Brian Shank

Jamie Keniston They do indeed get more attention IF[!] they are only one of two candidates in the November election instead of one of three, but that requires that one particular major party bless them with the fortune of not running in the blanket primary. If two major party candidates indeed compete in the blanket primary, the Libertarian candidate has basically zero chance to advance to a two-candidate run-off in November. In which case they get essentially NO exposure or input during a time when most people are paying attention; in November. Note that in a major state-wide race, it is pretty rare for a major party candidate to go unchallenged by the other major party, so Libertarians very rarely if ever get to the November election in these important state-wide races. Fix the real problem. If elections didn't force voters to pick only one candidate on a ballot, many of the difficulties with the election system that top-two attempts to alleviate would not exist!

Brian Shank
Brian Shank

I agree with Richard Winger's points on this article. For those of you following this on the Facebook discussion, below is Richard Winger's comment on this article he posted at the IVN website comments section: Richard Winger: "This article does not differentiate between non-partisan elections and top-two elections. The Washington state Libertarian Party has not elected anyone in a top-two election. Furthermore the Washington state LP is the only state LP in the west that is not a qualified party. The Washington state LP is the only LP in the west that must petition to get the party's presidential nominee on the November ballot.. The top-two system in Washington has barred all Libertarians from running in the general election, in a partisan election, except in cases when only one major party member was running. Because of top-two, there has not been any Libertarian on the November ballot for congress or statewide state office since top-two started. Of course a Libertarian can get on the November ballot for legislature, because there are many legislative elections in Washington in which only one major party person files. Obviously if there are only 2 candidates in a primary, they will both qualify for the November ballot. But since top-two started, Libertarians have given up running for Congress or statewide state office. They know they won't place first or second so they don't try."

Jamie Keniston
Jamie Keniston

Brian The problem with your logic is that by the time the most people pay attention to elections, no one is going to care about third party candidates. Up until then, no one is paying attention to them. In a situation where a third party candidate makes it to the general election from a top-two primary, much more attention will be on them and for much longer because it is them versus only one other candidate.

Steve Hough
Steve Hough

Brian Shank That's an idea worth more than considering, as a majority vote getter in the top two would win the seat but, if not, a runoff for the top two could be held at some predetermined date.

Brian Shank
Brian Shank

If that primary were held on November election day, I would agree with you. Holding it in June (CA primary) does tremendous harm to third party and independent candidates.

Steve Hough
Steve Hough

The Libertarian Party has opposed Top Two non-partisan primaries in defense of their ballot access in general elections. I think it is more advantageous for minor parties to compete in the primaries, where they obtain greater exposure to their ideas.

Raymond Berry
Raymond Berry

States where the Democrat candidate has no one running against him, they send all the Democrat voters to the polls to elect the least effective Republican. Then your Republican vote does nothing.

RichardWinger
RichardWinger

This article does not differentiate between non-partisan elections and top-two elections.  The Washington state Libertarian Party has not elected anyone in a top-two election.  Furthermore the Washington state LP is the only state LP in the west that is not a qualified party.  The Washington state LP is the only LP in the west that must petition to get the party's presidential nominee on the November ballot..


The top-two system in Washington has barred all Libertarians from running in the general election, in a partisan election, except in cases when only one major party member was running.  Because of top-two, there has not been any Libertarian on the November ballot for congress or statewide state office since top-two started.


Of course a Libertarian can get on the November ballot for legislature, because there are many legislative elections in Washington in which only one major party person files.  Obviously if there are only 2 candidates in a primary, they will both qualify for the November ballot.  But since top-two started, Libertarians have given up running for Congress or statewide state office.  They know they won't place first or second so they don't try.

Albert P
Albert P

@RichardWinger So, essentially what you are saying is that the Libertarian Party simply does not have enough support to win elections, no matter what the system is. If they face two major party candidates, they are going to lose. If they are in the general election with two major party candidates and possibly other minor party candidates, they can't win, unless it is a two man race -- in which they have a better shot. It is interesting you don't address Pickens' comment:


“The bottom line is third parties have to go to work,” he said. “If we can’t get second place in a primary, we’re never going to be able to get first place in the general.”


Under top two, if they do get past the primary, they get more attention for a much longer period, as opposed to a partisan system or a system with no primary where no one is going to care about the third party candidate even when they start getting minor attention in the general election. The difference between Pickens and some third party leaders in California is he doesn't have the attitude of, well since our candidates don't have enough support to get to the general election, we are just going to take our ball and go home. 

Albert P
Albert P

I think there is a case to be made that third parties could do even better in states where third parties have greater numbers. In California, all third parties combined make up well less than 10% of the registered voter population. They have little support to begin with and many leaders don't want to do the work needed to build support. They just want to complain. 

samb
samb

“The bottom line is third parties have to go to work,” Very astute observation. One thing politics seems to have a lot of is those who will talk the talk, but when it comes to walking the walk, it looks like actually campaigning is paying off in washington.