…A perspective worth your time to consider…

…A perspective worth your time to consider…

Ivory tower political theory meets

cold hard reality: the false premise

of the ‘top two primary’ system

 

Posted: 03 Jun 2012 09:11 AM PDT  Posted by AzBlueMeanie:

"There’s Nothing in the Middle of the Road but Yellow Stripes and Dead Armadillos." - Jim Hightower

The Arizona Republic today has yet another opinion extolling the supposed virtues of the "top two primary," which is currently an inititiative drive in Arizona, but is a reality that will get its first test in California in its primary this Tuesday. (More about that later).

Media villagers love this supposed panacea for what the media villagers regularly portray as a broken political system, blaming the two major political parties. The rise in "no party preference" voters, the media villagers tell us, is evidence that our political system is broken.

The media villagers — most of whom register as independent/no party preference to maintain the illusion that they have no political bias — put "independent" voters up on a pedestal and extoll the virtues of independent voters as being the ideal voter. Some media villagers go so far as to argue that political parties have outlived their usefulness and we no longer need them.

And this is why media villagers should not have the power and influence that they enjoy over our politics and electoral process. Their "conventional wisdom" is always wrong.

James Fallows wrote this post at The Atlantic awhile back in response to the "Goodbye to All That" essay by Mike Lofgren, a Republican staffer on the Hill for nearly 30 years, who retired last year. ‘People Don’t Realize How Fragile Democracy Really Is’ – The Atlantic:

More fundamentally, Lofgren argues that today’s Republicans believe they are better off if government as a whole is shown to fail, not just this Democratic Administration. Republican hard-liners might seem to have "lost" the debt-ceiling showdown, in that they wound up even less popular than the Democrats are. But in the long view, Lofgren says, unpopularity for anyone in Congress, including their party’s leaders, helps the Republicans: "Undermining Americans’ belief in their own institutions of self-government remains a prime GOP electoral strategy," because it buildings a nihilistic suspicion of any public effort, from road-building to Medicare to schools. (Except defense.) As I say, read it for yourself.

When you’re done, consider this message I received today, from another former Congressional staffer whose tenure overlapped almost exactly with Lofgren’s. This too is worth reading carefully, for it advances an important complementary point:

Like Mike Lofgren, I am a retired Congressional staffer who worked for a House Member from 1985 until January of this year. Unlike Lofgren, I did not retire voluntarily; my boss, a moderate Democrat, lost his race for re-election last November. I found myself agreeing with virtually everything in Mike’s article and immediately forwarded it to a bunch of my friends, some of whom remain working on the Hill.

Privately, many of us who have worked in Congress since before the Clinton Administration have been complaining about the loss of the respect for the institution by the Members who were elected to serve their constituents through the institution. I don’t think people realize how fragile democracy really is. The 2012 campaign is currently looking to be the final nail in the coffin unless people start to understand what is going on.

One thing that especially resonated with me about Mike’s piece is the importance of "low information" voters. The mainstream media absolutely fails to understand how little attention average Americans really pay to what goes on in all forms of government. During our 2008 race, our pollster taught me (hard to believe it took me 24 years to learn this) that the average voter spends only 5 minutes thinking about for whom to vote for Congress. All the millions of dollars of TV ads, all the thousands of robo-calls and door-knocks, and it all comes down to having a message that will stick in the voters’ minds during the 5 minutes before they walk into the voting booth.

The media likes to call this group "independents," which implies that they think so long and deeply about issues that they refuse to be constrained by the philosophy of either party. There may be a couple of people out there who fit that definition, but those are not the persuadable voters campaigns are trying to capture. Every campaign is trying to develop its candidate into an easy-to-remember slogan that makes him or her more appealing than the other guy. Actually, because negative campaigning is so effective, they are more often trying to portray the opponent as more objectionable ("I guess I’ll vote for the crook because at least he won’t slash my Medicare).

When the media villagers disparage the major political parties and argue that our political sytem is broken, they are actually reinforcing and creating an echo chamber for the Republican message of "undermining Americans’ belief in their own institutions of self-government remains a prime GOP electoral strategy." And when the media villagers put "independent" voters up on a pedestal and extoll the virtues of independent voters as being the ideal voter, they are putting the fate of our fragile democracy in the hands of low information voters who spend only 5 minutes thinking about for whom to vote for Congress.

The independent voter is like the guy who walks into the fast food restaurant, and when asked by the clerk what he’d like, he gives the menu board a quick glance and says "I dunno… hmmm, how about the number 3 combo with a large Coke." This is the guy the media villagers extoll as the ideal voter and put in his hands the fate of our fragile democracy.

David R. Berman, a senior research fellow at Morrison Institute for Public Policy, writes today in the Arizona Republic, How open primaries would affect elections in Arizona:

With registered independent voters in Arizona already outnumbering registered Democrats and soon to surpass the roster of registered Republicans, have political-party primaries outlived their usefulness? And is it time for Arizona to begin electing local, statewide and federal officeholders in a nonpartisan manner to reflect the more moderate views of the general population?

Those related questions likely will be answered in the fall, with a proposal for open primaries and a top-two vote-getter system. A group headed by former Phoenix Mayor Paul Johnson has until July 5 to gather 259,213 valid signatures to put the "Open Elections/Open Government Act" proposition on the Nov. 6 ballot.

* * *

First, let’s examine the election system we have: Currently, Arizona has primary and general elections. Summertime primaries operate virtually exclusively within individual political parties — Democrats holding a Democratic primary closed to all other parties, and Republicans doing the same.

Legally, independents can choose to vote in either party’s primary, but not both. Realistically, independents usually vote in neither primary. They, like most Arizona voters, wait until the general election, which is open to all registered voters.

Therein lies the problem.

Because party primaries traditionally have been low-turnout affairs, the few partisan voters who do show up tend to be from the opposite ends of the ideological scale — far to the right in Republican primaries and far to the left in Democratic primaries. Moderates from both parties often fail to survive the primary, so much so that few even try.

* * *

Supporters of the top-two vote-getter proposal argue that the election system should be reshaped to encourage a level of greater moderation, if not participation. Otherwise, the proposal’s proponents say, the current system’s end result — certainly as shown in the state Legislature — is somewhat predictable: ideological extremism.

* * *

Let’s examine the top-two proposal: Gone would be political-party primaries funded by taxpayers. Primaries would be open to all.

Voters would be given the opportunity in the primary to choose from all candidates for a particular office, regardless of the voter’s or candidates’ political affiliation. Candidates, however, could designate a party preference on the ballot, but they would not be required to do so.

The top-two vote-getters in the primary — again, regardless of party — would face each other in the general election for an open office. (In the case of the state House of Representatives, where two members are elected from each of the 30 districts, the top four candidates to emerge in a primary would advance to the general election.)

The stated central objective of the top-two primary plan is to elect more "moderate" candidates, but not in the generic sense of the word.

Rather, it is to influence the selection of "less-extreme" candidates in both the primary and general election by encouraging candidates to appeal to a broader constituency, not simply to the extreme members of their own party who are most likely to vote in a primary under present practice.

The fundamental flaw in this ivory tower "top two primary" theory is that it disregards human nature: people are creatures of habit. The same low information independent voter who does not vote in party primaries now is not going to be suddenly transformed into a civic-minded voter who studies the candidates and votes in primary elections. That low information independent voter is a creature of habit who will continue not to vote in the primary election, same as always. Election data over many years confirms this.

Mr. Berman next argues that:

Theoretically, the plan works especially well in promoting moderation in districts dominated by members of the same political party.

* * *

If two Democrats were nominated, Republicans and independents would be expected to tilt the election in favor of the less liberal of the two.

If two Republicans were nominated, Democrats and independents would be expected to tilt the election in favor of the less conservative of the two.

The result: an elected individual who better represents the entire constituency.

Quite the contrary, this ivory tower "top two primary" theory is disconnected from reality. Mr. Berman should know from many years worth of election data that in districts where voters have no real choice in November, districts in which the only candidate choices are either a Republican or a Democrat who has effectively been elected at the primary election, voter turnout in those districts is depressed because the outcome is already determined. In these districts opposition party voters are effectively disenfranchised, they are not empowered as Mr. Berman suggests to decide between two equally bad alternatives from the other party. This will not increase voter participation, but may have the opposite intended consequence of decreasing voter participation.

Moreover, why should voters’ choices be limited by an arbitrary primary system? Under the top two primary system, the Green Party, Libertarian Party, and the "not a political party" Americans Elect Party may as well put out their "out of business" sign now. These political parties have virtually no chance to qualify a candidate for the November ballot as they do now. The top two primary system actually reduces candidate options. How is this an improvement?

As Mr. Berman concedes, "Political parties also could encourage or discourage candidates to run as a way to control the ballot and push for their choice, still making it difficult for independents and third-party candidates to win." There are currently only 3 independents filed to run for political offices this fall in Arizona, all of them formerly registered Republicans. Without a political party infrastructure to provide candidate support with financing, communications, and volunteer boots on the ground to get out the vote, a true independent candidate has virtually no chance of being elected.

Moreover, this notion that political parties have outlived their usefulness and are no longer needed is a dangerous idea. As Aristotle observed, "Nature abhors a vacuum." If the political parties are not providing an infrastructure for campaigns and elections, some other entity will rush in to fill it. We have already seen the dark forces unleashed by Citizens United v. FEC.

Rather than having democratically elected political parties serve the primary function for campaigns and elections, we are already seeing them displaced by eccentric billionaires and corporate Super-PACs that do not provide a political party infrastructure, but rather rely exclusively on media advertising. (No wonder the media villagers like this — it means advertising revenue to their bottom line). It is perfect for the low information voter who spend only 5 minutes thinking about for whom to vote for Congress. But it is terrible for a democracy.

California’s primary election puts ‘top-two’ voting to the test on Tuesday. Brian Calle at the Orange County Register takes a look at some of the matchups to watch. What will CA’s new open primary system mean for elections?:

If it works as promoted by its supporters, the top-two format will result in a more moderate Legislature, but this year is the first test of that theory.

The top-two primary system was adopted by voters in 2010 as Proposition 14, California’s Top Two Candidates Open Primary Act, which sought to reform the California Legislature by reducing extreme partisanship, giving the electorate, in its entirety, the power to vote in the primary for any candidate, regardless of party affiliation.

(It’s important to remember that the top-two format does not apply to presidential elections, local elected offices, such as city councils, nor to elections for offices within a political party, such as seat on a central committee.)

Basically under the new system, primary elections become almost as important as the general election because the top two vote-getters advance to the general election in November, regardless of their political party affiliation. Just two. That’s it.

Political parties, in this process, become less important, meaning that some legislative districts in California this November very well could see two members of the same party facing off against each other.

Here’s one hypothetical. In Orange County’s 74th Assembly District, Assemblyman Allan Mansoor and a fellow Republican, Newport Beach Councilwoman Leslie Daigle, could finish 1-2 on June 5, setting up a rematch in November. In that scenario, the third-place primary finisher, in this case Newport Beach businessman Bob Rush, a Democrat, would be eliminated and registered Democrats and others would be left to vote in November for one of the Republicans, ostensibly giving them the ability to swing the election (if they chose to vote).

The newly redrawn 74th District has a distinct Republican edge in voter registration, but with Republican votes split, non-GOP voters might tip the balance.

Another example of this scenario is in a congressional district on the Westside of Los Angeles, where two Democratic members of the House of Representatives, Brad Sherman and Howard Berman, have been thrown against each other as the result of redistricting. They, too, could end up fighting over votes twice, in June and November. The result might hinge on which candidate finds more support among Republicans in the district.

In terms of statewide offices, the top-two primary system has made California’s U.S. Senate race at least interesting as a case study. Of 24 candidates running, including four-term Democratic incumbent Sen. Dianne Feinstein, only two will advance to the November runoff. It is widely assumed Feinstein will finish first in the primary and go on to an easy victory in November. More interesting to watch will be who gets to compete against her.

With so many candidates, one could call this particular primary battle a “jungle” primary. The California Republican Party endorsed a Senate candidate, Elizabeth Emken, well before the primary. Whether the “official” party endorsement helps will be decided June 5, but preprimary endorsements seem like the only way the parties can stay at least somewhat relevant in picking a candidate in line with their party’s platform. The challenge, though, is that it holds up to scrutiny the process by which the parties bestow endorsements. For example, some of the other Republican candidates for Senate have charged that Emken had an inside track during the endorsement process.

* * *

With the top-two primary system, politics will potentially be reconfigured in California. It’s anyone’s guess whether any change is for better or worse.

The state of Louisiana has had the "top two primary" system for many years. No one, and I mean no one, would ever hold up Louisiana as a model state for elections. Don’t be fooled by this nonsense.

If you want to change the stance of political parties, the answer is to actively participate within those political parties. It is docile passivity and lack of civic involvement by American voters that is the core problem. Do not surrender our democracy to the low information voter who spends only 5 minutes thinking about for whom to vote for Congress. That is how democracy dies.

 

 

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