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.
"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."