Home / Election 2012 / Other states with top-2 primaries show mixed results

Other states with top-2 primaries show mixed results

Some critics worry that California’s 31st Congressional District reflects what will happen in Arizona if voters pass the top-two initiative to change the state’s primary election system.

Although the district leans Democratic, four Democrats split up the vote in the June primary, allowing two Republicans to advance to the general election.

Others predict that Arizona would benefit from such a system, saying California’s elections have become much more competitive and participation among independents has increased.

In November, Arizonans will vote on Prop. 121, the Open Elections/Open Government Act, which would allow the two candidates who get the most votes in a primary to move on to the general election regardless of their party.

A look at two states where voters approved similar measures — California and Washington — reveals mixed results.

In some races, the top-two primary appears to do just as its advocates say. It has given voters in one-party districts a chance to have their voices heard in the general election, and forced candidates who would otherwise have focused only on their partisan bases in the primary to reach out to voters in the middle and on the other side of the aisle.

Prominent Republicans have even given endorsements in one high-profile California race between two incumbent Democratic congressmen.

But a handful of races have also borne out the unintended consequences that opponents warn will come to Arizona if voters pass the measure.

Trickery and campaign shenanigans have been used to knock off moderate candidates in favor of more extreme challengers.

Ultimately, political operatives and academics in California in Washington say it will take years to determine the full impact of the top-two primary. Washington held its first top-two primary in 2008, and 2012 is California’s first cycle under the new system. Arizona voters will have to make their choice based on the limited results those states have seen so far.

Under the proposed system, Arizona would scrap its partisan primaries in favor of a blanket primary where all candidates for an office appear on one ballot that is open to all voters. The top two vote- getters would advance to the general election.

Supporters say the system will result in more moderates getting elected, minimize the “extremes” of both major parties, create more competition by forcing candidates to appeal to a wider swath of voters, make the system more open to independent voters, and level the playing field for independent candidates.

Critics question whether the system will actually work as intended, saying it will eliminate choices between important party distinctions, disenfranchise third parties, and open the door to more “sham” candidates and other campaign trickery.

Loren Collingwood, a political science professor at the University of California-Riverside, said there are key examples backing up both sides’ arguments.

“Right now, there’s not enough data to really make sweeping claims from a political scientist’s perspective,” Collingwood said.

In Washington and California, the results have included several examples of the shenanigans that top-two critics warn will come to Arizona if voters approve Proposition 121.

In 2010, labor groups and trial lawyers used the top-two to replace a moderate incumbent Democratic legislator with a more liberal challenger in Washington’s 38th District, which centers on the town of Everett. The groups put more than a quarter million dollars into PACs with conservative names to attack incumbent Jean Berkey, ostensibly on behalf of “Conservative Party” challenger Rod Rieger, and were able to knock off Berkey in the primary. Instead of having a competitive general election in the heavily Democratic district, Berkey’s more liberal challenger cruised to victory in November.

More recently, in California’s San Diego-area 51st Congressional District, Democrat Juan Vargas spent $40,000 to $50,000 to support Republican Michael Crimmins. Democrat Denise Moreno Ducheny came in third in the top-two primary, and Vargas is now expected to win an easy victory in the heavily Democratic district, according to media reports.

“It just creates an incentive to game the system,” said Chris Vance, the former chairman of the Washington State Republican Party.

Raphael Sonenshein, a political science professor at California State University, Los Angeles, said campaign tricks will become more prevalent as people adapt to the system. But voters and the media will get better at ferreting them out as well, he said.

In Washington, the consulting firm that propped up Berkey’s conservative opponent, Moxie Media, was fined $110,000 by the state Attorney General’s Office, and had to pay an additional $40,000 in legal fees.

Phil Giarrizzo, a Sacramento-based Democratic campaign consultant, said California didn’t see much of an increase in campaign trickery under the top-two, primarily because some campaigns have always employed such tricks.

“There’s always political chicanery that can be played. We didn’t see many of those examples in California because there’s always political chicanery,” he said.

Paul Johnson, who’s spearheading the campaign for Prop. 121, agreed.

After all, he said, Arizona’s most famous example of a “sham”

candidate happened without the top-two primary, when allies of former Senate President Russell Pearce ran Olivia Cortes in the 2011 recall election to siphon off votes. And in 2010, he noted, Republicans recruited a host of people to run as Green Party candidates, some of whom won their primaries as write-in candidates with just a single vote.

Even Terry Thompson, a consultant who worked on Berkey’s 2010 campaign, said the top-two system isn’t more susceptible to the types of duplicity that occurred in Berkey’s race. The greater factor that will lead to more tricks like that, he said, is the increasing campaign spending by special interests.

“The whole thing with independent expenditures has just changed everything,” Thompson said.

But while Cortes became a media sensation because of her high-profile race, many other legislative races get much less media attention.

Collingwood said those races are susceptible to deception.

“It’s really in low-information campaigns where it can be a potential problem. That’s where voters don’t have much information and someone can come in and basically have the same name as somebody else and get on the ballot and get in the general election,” Collingwood said.

Another concern raised by opponents of the top-two is the effect vote- splitting could have in many races. For example, California’s 31st Congressional District, based in the Los Angeles area, is Democratic leaning. But in the June primary, four Democratic candidates split up the vote and the district ended up sending two Republicans to the general election.

Johnson, chairman of the Open Government Committee, said that race is an anomaly. But, he said, whichever Republican wins the district will have to either appeal to the majority of its voters or face defeat in 2014.

Some critics in Arizona have expressed concerns that the same thing could happen here. The partisan primaries for Arizona’s 9th Congressional District, arguably the most competitive in the state, featured three Democrats and seven Republicans vying for their parties’ nominations. But even though Republicans cast about 9,000 more ballots in the primary than Democrats did, the top two vote- getters were both Democrats.

Johnson argues that a top-two system would not have caused an all- Democrat general election between David Schapira and Kyrsten Sinema.

Johnson said the dynamics of a top-two primary would have been a lot different, including crossover votes, independent candidates, more turnout from independent voters and more attempts by candidates on both sides to reach out to the other party’s voters.

Sonenshein, the Cal State political science professor, said he expects the Democratic and Republican parties to get more engaged in races early on to make sure too many candidates don’t run.

“In this case I think it just wasn’t on the radar and they didn’t adjust. So they lost the seat,” he said.

To many supporters, California’s first top-two primary is a rousing success. Though the state hasn’t yet completed its first full election cycle under the new system, there is a plethora of examples of the top- two doing exactly what its advocates intended.

Eight of the state’s 53 congressional districts will have general election contests with two candidates of the same party, along with 18 state Assembly seats and two state Senate seats.

The most well-publicized is in the 30th Congressional District, where redistricting pit Democratic incumbents Brad Sherman and Howard Berman against each other. The race has received national attention, and prominent Republicans such as U.S. Sens. John McCain and Lindsay Graham have entered the fray to endorse Berman in the Democratic district.

“They’re both out beating the bushes trying to get Republican support,” Sonenshein said. “It gives the out party in a district a say.”

Dan Schnur, a political science professor at the University of Southern California and a one-time staffer to McCain and former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, said there’s no way to gauge the full results of California’s top-two primary until the November election.

But there’s no doubt, he said, that candidates with intraparty general election contests are reaching out to more voters.

“If the top-two primary does nothing else but create an incentive for candidates to reach out across party lines for support, rather than just really on your own party’s ideological base, then it’s been a very good thing,” Schnur said.

Johnson said many observers now say California has gone from having some of the least competitive elections in the country to some of most competitive.

“That is the beginning of how you get people to start talking to one another,” Johnson said. “When we get this system passed, you’re going to see Republicans and Democrats reaching across that aisle. And if they don’t, you’re going to see them beat.”

In Arizona, many have speculated that a top-two primary would have created competitive races in some of the state’s one-party districts.

In the 4th Congressional District, U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar would likely face primary opponent Ron Gould again in the general election, while the general election in the 6th Congressional District could be a rematch of the blockbuster fight between incumbents Ben Quayle and David Schweikert. Under the current system, Gosar and Schweikert have little competition in November.

Vance, the Washington state Republican, said the top-two primary empowers moderates. He pointed to the 2010 U.S. Senate race in Washington, where moderate Republican Dino Rossi bested Tea Party candidate Clint Didier in the open primary.

“If you had had a closed system — party registration, only registered Republicans can vote — he might have upset Dino Rossi,” said Vance, who said he’s an opponent of the top-two system. “But under the top- two system, he got like 10 percent. When you have a system where everybody can vote instead just really small numbers of party activists running, it empowers moderates. And I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.”

Others question whether Republicans and Democrats will even bother to come out and vote for candidates of the other party in general elections.

“It’s quite possible that Republicans will choose to sit it out rather than make a decision to choose between the lesser of two evils, and the same is true of Democrats,” said Ross Bates, a Democratic consultant in the state of Washington.

While supporters such as Johnson and Sonenshein like the way one-party general elections give voters a meaningful choice in general elections, opponents like Vance say it eliminates the very real distinction between the two parties. Nathan Sproul, a GOP consultant in Arizona, shares his concern.

“With the system that we have now, voters have a genuine choice,” Sproul said. “But the system that is being proposed, it’s quite possible that two Democrats could win a statewide primary and then almost 50 percent of the voters in the state won’t have a candidate who represents them in the general election.”

Sproul also worried about unintended consequences, such as Louisiana’s 1991 gubernatorial election, where former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke won that state’s blanket primary and ultimately lost to a candidate who was under indictment.

“I think the biggest problem with it is it’s incredibly unpredictable.

We set ourselves up to elect a David Duke-type candidate,” Sproul said.

Johnson and other supporters of the top-two say the Duke election is an outlier and not representative of that type of system. Louisiana’s system is also notably different than the ones in California or Washington or proposed in Arizona.

The big question is whether California voters elect the more moderate candidates in those races, or whether top-two primaries result in better, less partisan government, as supporters say. So far, the jury is still out.

Washington state is an imperfect comparison. Even before the top-two, the state used a blanket primary system in which all candidates appeared on the same ballot, and the top vote-getter from each party advanced to the general election. Washingtonians also do not register to vote under a party label. Other states with versions of the top-two primary, such as Louisiana and Nebraska, also use radically different election systems.

Todd Donovan, a political science professor at Western Washington University, said the Washington Legislature doesn’t seem any less partisan. But the top-two wasn’t as big of a change in Washington as in Arizona or California, he said, and other states may see different results.

“I think it would have a bigger impact in either of those states than it did in Washington, because it’s always been a very open primary system here. It’s much bigger change in California and Arizona,” Donovan said.

Steve Peace, a former Democratic lawmaker and one of the leaders of the campaign for California’s top-two primary, said he’s already seen less vitriol and rhetoric from lawmakers who knew they would have to run for re-election in a top-two system this year.

Another major change, Peace said, is a massive increase in the number of independents running for office. Sonenshein, the Cal State professor, said some of the candidates are Republicans who re- registered as independents so they could run in certain districts.

Johnson predicted that the top-two would lead to higher turnout in Arizona among independents, primarily because of the Permanent Early Voter List. Registered Democrats and Republicans who are on the list automatically get ballots in the mail, but independents, who can vote in either party’s primary, must specifically request which ballot they want.

Candidates, political parties and voters are still getting used to the new system, and Sonenshein said it will take everyone a little while to adapt. Some say it has had little impact so far.

Most observers say it will take years to see the full impact of the top-two primary in Arizona, California or Washington.

“(The results are) way beyond expectations, although I don’t think you can really measure anything until you get a decade of experience with a change as fundamental as this,” Peace said.

And even many supporters warn that people shouldn’t expect too much.

“You can’t oversell these reforms,” Sonenshein said. “They’re not going to make food taste better and make you live forever and all this kind of stuff. But I think, within what it can offer, it does give some space for candidates and constituencies that might not have previously been heard because our current system leaves you out-voted if you’re in a heavily partisan district. That’s plenty. Why do you also have to make the sun rise at a different time and bring about world peace and end starvation?”


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