Free & Equal press release rebuts “Top-Two” open primary

Over at Free & Equal, ballot access expert, Richard Winger, delivered a point-by-point rebuttal of Jonathan Alter’s advocacy of a top-two, open primary system in Newsweek.  Here is the full text of Winger’s press release:

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE


Newsweek Column Spreads Common Misconceptions About “Top-Two” Primaries

 
 
Ballot Access Expert Richard Winger Writes Editorials Against Measure
 
In June of 2010, the voters of California will vote on a measure to institute a Washington-Style “Top-Two” Primary system. Top-Two is a system which the top two vote getters in the primary are the only names to appear on the November ballot -even if that means only one political party is represented.
 
Now, columnist Jonathan Alter writes in Newsweek that the Top-Two Primary is a fullproof “Jackass-Reduction Plan.”
 
“The Top-Two Primary is the biggest threat to the existence of minor parties in over 50 years,” said Free & Equal Founder and Chair Christina Tobin. “Once again, the proponents of the system fail to take into account the effect that Top-Two will have on voter choice.”

Renowned ballot access expert and Free & Equal board member Richard Winger has written a response to Alter, as well as an opinion editorial published in the Sacramento Bee.
 
Mr. Winger’s point-by-point rebuttal to Alter’s column follows:
 
1. “Top-two” helps incumbents and does not “reduce jackasses.” When it was used for the first time in Washington state in 2008, out of 123 state legislative races, only one incumbent was defeated in the primary, and his reputation at the time of the primary was such that he probably would have been defeated under any election system.
 
2. Corrupt special interests were the top financial backers when the “top-two” initiative (Prop. 62) qualified for the California ballot in 2004. The leading financial backer was Countrywide Home Loans, which at the time was the nation’s biggest home mortgage lender, but which no longer exists, having been bought out by Bank of America in 2008. Separate from that, Countrywide was sued by 10 states for tricking people into taking out mortgages with disguised adjustable rates, something highlighted in Michael Moore’s new film opening October 2, “Capitalism: a Love Story.” Big business executives favored “top-two” because it screens out from the general election candidates who didn’t have the financial advantages to place first or second in the first round.
 
3. “Top-two” wipes minor party and independent candidates out of the general election campaign season. This was shown when Washington state used the system for the first time in 2008. For the first time since Washington became a state, no minor party or independent candidates appeared on the November ballot in any congressional election or any statewide state office election.
 
4. The system may well be unconstitutional. On August 20, 2009, a U.S. District Court in Washington state said the system may be unconstitutional and set the stage for new briefings and a probable trial.
 
5. “Top-two” greatly increases the cost of campaigning, because it forces candidates to run, in effect, two campaigns in front of the entire electorate (assuming they qualify for the second round).
 
6. “Top-two” is not favored by people who have studied election systems. Political Science Professor Paul Gronke, of Reed College, posed a question to all 600 political scientists on the Political Methodology listserve, asking how many support “top-two”. Only one political scientist replied in the affirmative. Professor Gronke participated in debates last year when Oregon voters were deciding whether to vote for “top-two”. Gronke opposed the ballot measure, which was defeated 2-1.
Mr. Winger’s opinion editorial was published in the Sacramento Bee on September 20, 2009. The text of the editorial follows.
 
In June 2010, California voters will be voting on a ballot measure to revise elections for Congress and state office. The measure would provide that all candidates run on a single primary ballot, and all voters get the same primary ballot. Then, only the two candidates who received the most votes in the primary could be on the November ballot.
 
Although The Bee has endorsed this ballot initiative, it is a bad idea. In practice, it would eliminate minor party and independent candidates from the November ballot. We know this is true because Washington state tried the system for the first time in 2008, and that’s what happened. Washington, for the first time since it became a state in 1889, had no minor party or independent candidates in November for any statewide state race or for any congressional race.
 
When voters are voting in a primary, they are focusing on which particular Democrat or Republican they want to help. They have no time to pay attention to minor party or independent candidates. So those candidates haven’t a prayer of coming in first or second.
 
Even Jesse Ventura, running for governor of Minnesota in 1998, only got 3 percent of the vote in that state’s September primary, which was a classic open primary (any voter could vote in any party’s primary; Ventura was running in the Reform Party primary).
 
But he went on to win the November election. Under the proposal that Californians will be voting on next year, Ventura and candidates like him would be wiped out after the primary is over.
 
Minor party and independent candidates are useful to society. Because they generally don’t expect to win, they are free to say exactly what they believe about social problems and how to fix those problems.
 
The United States needs fresh thinking about our problems. But the election proposal would drive minor party and independent candidates out of the general election fall campaign, the time when voters are most interested in ideas for fixing our national problems.
 
Voters would be wise to vote “no” on next year’s ballot measure. Incidentally, California voters already defeated this idea once, in November 2004, when it was known as Proposition 62. Also, Oregon voters defeated it in November 2008, when it was known as Question 65.
 
The Free and Equal Elections Foundation is vehemently opposed to the idea of the “Top Two” Primary. This ill-conceived system makes it virtually impossible for Independent and Third Party candidates to appear on the November ballot.
 
The Free and Equal Elections Foundation plans to coordinate efforts to defeat these amendments in California, and is participating in litigation against the Top Two Primary in Washington State.
 
The Free and Equal Elections Foundation is a non partisan, non profit 501c(4) organization dedicated to eliminating restrictive ballot access laws that target Independent and Third-Party Candidates.
 
Free & Equal will challenge these laws, through lobbying of state legislators, court challenges, and initiatives.
 
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