Many thoughtful assessments of the Top Two Open Primary proposal raise many of the issues considered by the California Independent Voter Project when researching election reform options over the past three years.
However, critics who rely upon a statistical analysis of Washington’s first year under their system (which is similar to the California proposal) reveal an honestly held bias that we believe results in missing the point.
It is not just about who gets elected. It is also about how they behave after the election, which of course, cannot be measured in election data.
The current partisan primary system results in a circumstance in which more than 90 percent of Legislative and Congressional elections are decided in primaries. This means that the November General election in which far more people vote is irrelevant in most political districts.
The Top Two Open primary insures that all elections are decided in the General election. Making sure that the broadest possible electorate decides elections is fundamental to the democratic process.
Political Party leaders prefer the current partisan primary system because it allows them to manipulate outcomes in the smaller primary universe. The two major parties also exploit minor party participation in General elections to protect weak nominees by securing plurality victories. This power allows Party leaders and special interest supporters to exercise inordinate influence on sitting politicians who might otherwise act more independently.
The Top Two system allows all candidates, including independents to compete in the Primary on an equal footing.
This system also re-enfranchises the 75% of voters who are Republicans in strong Democratic districts or Democrats in strong Republican districts or independents who prefer not to join a party as a condition of participation. For years their votes for Congress and the Legislature simply have not counted because only one candidate in the General election has any hope for victory.
Statewide, the system may very well produce only small changes in who gets elected, but it will produce more competitive general elections and important changes in behavior after the election.
Politicians are currently judged by a tiny sliver of the electorate. This is why our Congress and our Legislature are so much more polarized than the electorate as a whole. And even worse, this is why, over time, partisan political messaging has served to intensify the polarization of the public itself.
The Top Two Open Primary insures that our elected officials know that their actions will be judged by the public at-large, rather than by a tiny fraction of voters.
It is this behavioral change that is most critical and which statistical election outcome analysis cannot measure.
Over the past 50 years, the Republican and Democratic Parties have worked together to systematically remove competition from the electoral process. Together, they have rigged election laws and interceded in the courts to make it virtually impossible for a third party to emerge or for independent voters or candidates to meaningfully participate.
The Top Two Open Primary does not threaten the ability of any political party to compete. On the contrary it requires them and those who seek to be our representatives to compete and to be judged by a broad electorate that is reflective of the communities they want to represent.
The question before the voters will be a simple one. Do we want our elected representatives to be agents of political parties (large or small) or do we want them to be answerable directly to the voters?
No system is perfect and Top Two Open Primary will not be an exception to that rule. It will produce neither perfect results nor perfect candidates. But, it will free voters from a current system that essentially denies the right to vote for more than half of our citizens. And, it will free our elected officials from the, sometimes tyrannical, threats of party leaders and narrow special interests who thrive on stirring our worst fears and whose demand could never survive the test of public scrutiny.
Democracy works best when it is practiced by the broadest possible electorate. The Top Two Open Primary protects every voters’ freedom of choice and by so doing will encourage all political parties to pursue the common good over their narrow interest.