Pick Two

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The “top two” system of primary elections, which was put to voters in California on June 8, has been in effect for two election cycles in my home state of Washington. All the political parties hate it. I like it.

Washington has never had a system in which a citizen registers as a member of a party. I understand other states do it that way, but I don’t see why anyone would want it. Why identify yourself as a member of a party?

From the 1930s through the end of the century, Washington state had a “blanket” primary. A primary election for Congress might have had two or three Democrats, a couple of Republicans, a Libertarian and a Green. Any voter could vote for any one of them. Each party was in a separate contest to choose a nominee: one Democrat, one Republican, and, if they filed, one Libertarian, one Green.

In the blanket primary, voters could cross over. If you thought of yourself as a Republican, and there was only one Republican but two Democrats, you could use your vote to help select the Democratic nominee.

After about 65 years of Washington’s having that system, California adopted it. The California political parties sued, saying that the blanket primary violated their freedom of association. They argued that it was not fair to let Republicans help choose the nominee of the Democrats, and vice versa. And they had a point.

They won at the U.S. Supreme Court, which meant that Washington had to choose a new primary. It has ended up with the “top-two” primary.

Under the top-two, political parties are private organizations with no special access to the public ballot. Top-two ignores them. It puts on the primary ballot all candidates who file for it and lets them say what party, if any, they identify with. It sends the top two vote-getters on to the November ballot.

Usually, if there are, say, three Democrats, two Republicans, one Libertarian, and one Green, it will send to the November ballot one Democrat and one Republican — but not always. And note that top-two doesn’t choose nominees. The Libertarians, for example, can get together and nominate a candidate, but if he’s not one of the top two in the primary, he’s just not on the November ballot. The same goes for all other parties.

The Libertarians hate it, because it has pretty much wiped them off the November ballot in the state of Washington, a state in which ballot access has traditionally been easy. But the Libertarians are on the first ballot, and they can get on the second one if they can figure out a way to make themselves relevant. And that is fine with me. Electoral systems should be judged on how well they choose a winner, not on how well they allow minority viewpoints to showcase themselves.

Here’s how it works for me. I live in an 85% Democratic district within the city of Seattle. For years I had a choice between a Democrat who was sure to be elected and a Republican I’d never heard of. One year the Republican would be some college kid, and the next year some 70-year-old retired engineer with a ham radio in his basement. Then we got the top two — and one of my state representatives, a woman who had held the seat since 1972, retired. Suddenly there was a primary election with three candidates: a labor-left Democrat, an entrepreneurial “green” Democrat, and a conservative Republican.

Under the old blanket system, the real contest was in the primary, between the two Democrats. And during that contest, most of the Republicans would be off wasting their votes on the guy with the ham radio. Under the top two, both the candidates on the November ballot were Democrats. That’s where the real contest was — but suddenly all the votes of people who would have gone to Republicans or minor-party candidates counted. The entrepreneurial Democrat won, though there is no way to know whether he got the votes of the most Democrats. He got the votes of the most voters.

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