Several weeks ago here we started a debate about the pros and cons of the Top Two electoral system. In Top Two elections, there is an initial round of voting and then a run-off between the two candidates who get the most votes, i.e., the top two. The particulars of the rest of the system vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.
Our initial debate was between Nancy Hanks of The Hankster blog and Solomon Kleinsmith of the Rise of the Center blog. That effort ran aground due to a number of issues so with this post we’re launching a Top Two Debate Reset. That is, we’re starting over, still with Kleinsmith taking the anti side, while William Kelleher is taking the pro side. William J. Kelleher, Ph.D., is a political scientist, author, speaker, and CEO for The Internet Voting Research and Education Fund, a California nonprofit foundation.
In order to simplify the issue we are using a question Kleinsmith put forth during our negotiations on the debate as the starting point. He asked, “Why do you think that limiting how many people are allowed through a primary, and into the general election, to only two is a good thing – for independents and/or democratic fairness in general?”
Kelleher starts the debate supporting Top Two.
Political legitimacy requires a clear winner
It’s a law of nature that every “top” has a “bottom.” So I’ll start my discussion at the top, and then drop down to the other part.
For a democratic system to work well, the government must have a substantial degree of legitimacy in the opinion of the general public. As our Declaration of Independence says, we instituted our government “deriving [its] just powers from the consent of the governed.” If the government itself becomes destructive of these rights, “it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it.”
So, legitimacy with the public is the very foundation which our government, even today, stands upon. If this legitimacy is lost, or even diminished significantly, then there will be political trouble, like we have seen recently in the Middle East.
While every society has its share of unhappy and anti-social individuals, these can be kept to a minimum by following the principle of “majority rule.” Of course, our Constitution requires the government to respect the rights of minorities. But generally speaking, legitimacy will be preserved if the majority of the people feel that their will is being honored by the government.
That is why I say there is considerable political wisdom inherent in an election process that puts the final vote in a top two system. When the final vote is for either “A” or “B,” the winner will always be by a majority. If the final vote had three or four or five different candidates, the risk would be that none of them would receive a majority of votes. Then problems with legitimacy would be invited. Suppose “A” got 34% of the vote, and “B” and “C” each got 33%. “A” would be the winner, but not by a majority. In fact, 66%, a super majority, of the voters expressly preferred someone other than “A.” They would all be disappointed with the election’s results. This is foolishly asking for trouble.
Top Two’s Bottom
Candidates don’t simply appear, as if by magic, into a top two final contest. They arrive there as the result of a “primary” process.
There are all sorts of ways to pick the last two candidates for the final vote. In theory, they could be appointed by a dictator, king, governor, or a legislative decree. But these methods get us back to the legitimacy issue. In a democracy, the people should be involved in choosing the entire field of candidates, both for the primary vote and for the general election (in which one of the top two is finally chosen).
One way to involve at least some of the people in selecting candidates is to have political parties nominate who they want to run. Each party would put its own candidates on the primary ballot, and the voters would decide from among these which two will go to the general election.
A downside to this is that people who are independent of any of the political parties have a much more difficult time becoming a candidate. They might have to conduct a write in campaign, and these are almost never successful. Also, the party method of choosing candidates often produces partisan extremists, who don’t represent the will of the majority of all the people. California had these problems, so in June of 2010 the voters passed Proposition 14.
Prop 14 takes away the special privileges that the political parties used to have. One of those privileges was to allow the parties to pick their own candidates, and then limit voting for its candidates in the primary to only party members. This resulted in around 3.4 million independents being excluded from voting for candidates in the primary.
But under Prop 14, every individual who wants to be on the primary ballot has an equal opportunity to do so. Each person can “self-select.” And the primary vote is also open to all.
Clearly, the Prop 14 system of top two has both a democratic top and a democratic bottom.
Here is Kleinsmith’s opening statement opposing Top Two.
Top Two aids parties, hinders underdogs, and reduces voter choice
Supporters of “Top Two” primary rule changes are well aware of the opposition’s foundational problem with this modification to how primary elections work, yet until now they have avoided having an open and honest debate about it. I hope what follows from William will be an exception to this trend.
The core problem we have is the choke point it creates, where only two people can make it through the primary stage of the election, and onto the general election ballot. This is why I call them “Choke Point” primary rules… that is exactly what they accomplish – limiting the choice of general election voters to an artificial number. This is unacceptable to me on a number of levels, puts more power into the hands of party insiders, hinders underdog candidacies and gives general election voters much less choice.
I’m not sure what William is going to argue, so I’ll just clear up a few things now, and respond to his comments in this round in my next post.
First of all… Top Two and Open Primary are two very different things. In fact, there are only two states that have top two rules for major races, and over a dozen states that have open primaries without top two. Supporters of top two notoriously lie about this nearly every chance they get, supposedly because open primaries are a much less controversial subject. You can have them put together in one piece of legislation, but they are two separate primary rule changes.
Just a few days ago, William made a comment on Nancy Hanks’ blog, saying that (and I quote). “A “top two” system is necessary for the candidates to have legitimacy. This way, a candidate will always win by a majority.” This is another obvious lie that supporters of top two have been pushing over the last two years or so. Top two can be described as a run off election, moved from the general election, where all other forms of run offs are, to the primary. However, there are at least a half dozen other forms of run off election that accomplish the same goal, of making it so the candidate that wins in the end got 50 percent or more of the final vote. To say it is the only way is, to be very kind, a joke.
There is also this idea that Choke Point Primary supporters push that it somehow takes power away from partisans. During the debate over this issue, choke point primary supporters shrugged off warnings from others that it would lead to parties creating their own rules on how they decided which candidates they would put their organizational weight behind. They state that the top two choke point takes power away from the parties, but never seem to get around to saying how… just assuming it is the case. Their mistaken assumption was illustrated perfectly just last week.
The California Republican Party, responding to the top two choke point aspect of a package of several election rule changes last November, will (starting in 2014) decide which candidate to support ahead of the primary, by mail-in ballots to its members. The main strength for major party candidates has nothing to do with how they look on a ballot, it is almost entirely in the support those candidates are given in fundraising help, tying into volunteer networks and a long list of other campaign and policy assistance parties give candidates they back.
As much as top two supporters would like to continue pushing the empty talking point that says otherwise, the top two choke point does nothing to mitigate this, and actually incentivises the parties into pulling their process of deciding who to support internally… an even more closed process than was the case before.
Let’s see what William has to say.