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Newsweek's Jonathan Alter Writes in Support of "Top-Two"

Published on September 19, 2009, by in General.

Newsweek’s latest issue carries this column by its columnist Jonathan Alter, in favor of “top-two” election systems. Here is his column, which is titled, “The Jackass-Reduction Plan.”

Here is the text of a letter Ballot Access News has just sent to Jonathan Alter, outlining six reasons why he should change his mind:

1. “Top-two” helps incumbents and does not “reduce jackasses.” When it was used for the first time in Washington state in 2008, out of 123 state legislative races, only one incumbent was defeated in the primary, and his reputation at the time of the primary was such that he probably would have been defeated under any election system.

2. Corrupt special interests were the top financial backers when the “top-two” initiative (Prop. 62) qualified for the California ballot in 2004. The leading financial backer was Countrywide Home Loans, which at the time was the nation’s biggest home mortgage lender, but which no longer exists, having been bought out by Bank of America in 2008. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Countrywide_financial_political_loan_scandal (here is a link) for an account of one aspect of Countrywide’s behavior, giving cheap loans to important politicians. Separate from that, Countrywide was sued by 10 states for tricking people into taking out mortgages with disguised adjustable rates, something highlighted in Michael Moore’s new film opening October 2, “Capitalism: a Love Story.” Big business executives favored “top-two” because it screens out from the general election candidates who didn’t have the financial advantages to place first or second in the first round.

3. “Top-two” wipes minor party and independent candidates out of the general election campaign season. This was shown when Washington state used the system for the first time in 2008. For the first time since Washington became a state, no minor party or independent candidates appeared on the November ballot in any congressional election or any statewide state office election.

4. The system may well be unconstitutional. On August 20, 2009, a U.S. District Court in Washington state said the system may be unconstitutional and set the stage for new briefings and a probable trial.

5. “Top-two” greatly increases the cost of campaigning, because it forces candidates to run, in effect, two campaigns in front of the entire electorate (assuming they qualify for the second round).

6. “Top-two” is not favored by people who have studied election systems. Political Science Professor Paul Gronke, of Reed College, posed a question to all 600 political scientists on the Political Methodology listserve, asking how many support “top-two”. Only one political scientist replied in the affirmative. Professor Gronke participated in debates last year when Oregon voters were deciding whether to vote for “top-two”. Gronke opposed the ballot measure, which was defeated 2-1.

Another paragraph in BAN’s letter to Jonathan Alter, not reproduced here, explains why he should not refer to “top-two” as the “open primary.”

12 Responses

  1. Gary

    Add in this:

    In almost every democracy in the world all independent candidates and all legal parties are represented on a general election ballot.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mexican_legislative_election,_2009

    In the 2009 Mexico Congressional elections the THIRD PLACE party in the number of seats vaulted into 1st place by a landslide.

  2. I have posted a comment on Alter’s piece at the Newsweek website.

    If anyone is interested, I can post here links to two debates from last year’s “top two” (“open primary”) campaign in Oregon. One is a video and the other is an audio.

  3. Demo Rep

    NO primaries are needed.

    P.R. — Total Votes / Total Seats = EQUAL votes needed for each seat winner via pre-election candidate rank order lists to transfer surplus and loser votes.

    Voter votes for ONE candidate.

    The *area* based gerrymander system from the 1200s (repeat 1200s) is now STONE AGE primitive and SUPER-dangerous — producing ALL of the EVIL powermad gerrymander MONSTERS sitting in each Congress — with only about 40 somewhat marginal D/R of the 435 in the gerrymander U.S.A. House of Reps – the other 405 are hard core FANATIC EVIL robotic Donkeys / Elephants — as EVIL crazy as the members of any legislative body under the control of Stalin or Hitler (who maintained the fiction of having such alleged legislative bodies).
    ——-
    Approval Voting for NONPARTISAN executive / judicial offices.

    Voter votes for ONE or MORE for each office. Highest win >>> most likely some MODERATES.

    Freedom hangs by a thinner and thinner thread due to the accumulated powermad EVIL party hacks who want TOTAL control of everybody’s life, liberty and property — i.e. to make EVERYBODY a slave/ant in the *state* — except the super-elite, of course.

  4. Debates in Oregon’s 2008 “top two” ballot measure campaign:

    Click here for the video of former secretary of state Phil Keisling vs. former Gov. Barbara Roberts.

    Click here for the audio of Keisling vs. Professor Paul Gronke.

  5. I just discovered that the Keisling-Gronke audio is no longer available.

    In the Keisling-Roberts video, most of what Keisling says about the Louisiana system is wrong.

    Keisling claims that a poll shows 74% favoring the “top two.” Nearly 66% of Oregon voters said “no” to the measure last November.

  6. Jerry

    Why have primaries at all? Parties are private organizations. The leadership should choose their candidates for each office, as happens in any private organization. If the leaders choose candidates that appeal to the broad range of voters, their party will prosper; if not, their party will fail, as it should. If none of the parties choose wisely in a given district, that will open the door for independents.

    This is how most other democracies function, with results that don’t seem measurably worse than the US.

  7. Jim Riley

    The Supreme Court did not issue their ruling overturning the decision of the federal trial court until March 18, just 5 months before the primary, and the political parties continued to engage in delaying litigation despite the Supreme Court’s referring to the lower court’s decision as an “extraordinary and precipitous nullification of the will of the people.”

    This provided little time for additional candidates to prepare to run for office, or to change the dynamics of the election. Many (most?) incumbent legislatures had first been elected under the blanket primary, and so were used to appealing to voters without regard to party, even though they were running for party nomination in the blanket primary. Remember that the Washington legislature had passed the Top 2 primary only to have it blocked by Gary Locke’s ill-advised veto.

    It is simply unrealistic to measure the impact of the election system based on the change in the election system, especially when occurred so soon before an election.

    At the statewide level, you had the rematch of Christine Gregoire and Dino Rossi for governor which would have likely caused few voters to vote for a 3rd party candidate (5 3rd party and independent candidates received collectively less than 2.5% of the vote in the primary).

    For Attorney General and Secretary of State, you had the extraordinarily talented Rob McKenna and Sam Reed who are the primary reason that Top 2 was not overturned by the courts.

    And the independent candidate for Insurance Commissioner came much closer to actually being elected than did any candidate who merely made an appearance on the November 2004 statewide ballot (10% vs. 4%).

    In the 2006 elections for the US House of Representatives, there was only a single independent candidate (and no 3rd party candidates) among all nine districts, despite the fact that such candidates directly qualified for the November ballot.

    In 2006, all voters had a choice among only 19 candidates (2.11 per district). In 2008 this almost doubled to 36 (4.00 per district).

    You don’t want even to begin comparing the legislative races, where in 2006, the independent and 3rd party candidates could be counted on the stump of one arm.

    To qualify as an independent candidate for Congress in California requires over 10,000 signatures, a level that Richard Winger has characterized other States as being “intolerant” when applied to presidential ballot access. Under the Top 2 initiative, ballot qualification for all candidates would be quite low, where the primary election would be OPEN for all voters to participate.

    Judge Coughenour in his order wrote, “[i]nstead, the best that Plaintiffs can achieve is to invalidate certain portions of I-872’s implementation and enjoin the State from implementing I-872 in specific ways that lead to voter confusion or other forms of forced association. For example, if Plaintiffs’ challenge the specific wording used on the ballot or in the voter’s guide, they should identify the language currently used and request specific relief to remedy any resulting confusion.”

    The system used in Washington for electing precinct committee officers will likely be overturned. But Secretary of State Reed has already proposed changes that the legislature considered in 2010, and will likely pass in 2011 barring interference by the political whips. And the measure in California already has provisions to ensure that elections for party offices are restricted to persons affiliated with the party (and possible decline to state voters, subject to the rule of each party).

    Is there any evidence that Top 2 increased the cost of campaigning, let alone “greatly” increased it from Washington? Remember that California already uses the June election as the general election for county and local offices with a runoff 6 months later. California should simply move the primary to September so that candidates could run one more or less continuous campaign.

  8. Richard

    Jim Riley says the 2008 experience in Washington state wasn’t a fair test of the system, because the US Supreme Court decision came down on March 18, 2008, giving little time for people to decide to run that year. But anyone could file for the Washington state primary as late as June 6, 2008, by sitting at home and filing out an on-line form at the Secretary of State’s web page (even paying the filing fee by credit card). The procedure for filing didn’t change as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court decision.

    Jim says the independent candidate for Insurance Commissioner in 2008 came “closer to getting elected” than any statewide minor party or independent candidate in 2004. But the 2008 independent candidate for Insurance Commissioner didn’t even get on the November 2008 ballot! How can he be described as someone who “came close to getting elected”? Furthermore, it should be noted he was the Republican Party county chair in Spokane County, Washington; he wasn’t a bona fide independent candidate.

    Jim chides the minor parties for only running one candidate for U.S. House in 2006, but he doesn’t mention that there were two minor party candidates for U.S. Senate in 2006 (Green and Libertarian) and one independent for U.S. Senate in 2006 (Robin Adair), and all 3 enjoyed the ability to campaign in the fall season and get votes in November, under the classic open primary that was used in 2006.

    Jim is absolutely right that independent candidate ballot access in California is very severe. I have been trying to get it changed for decades, with no results.

    There are legal flaws in the California 2010 “top-two” measure. One of them is that it does not treat all candidates equally. Registered members of the Socialist Workers Party, for example, will not have their party registration listed on the California proposed “top-two” primary ballot, because the SWP is not a ballot-qualified party. And any idea that California would ever switch its primary from June to September is sheer fantasy.

    As to campaign spending being more expensive under a “top-two” system, that’s just common sense, because successful candidates must pay for two campaigns in front of the entire electorate. If there is any campaign finance data to contradict me, Jim seems to be a very good researcher; maybe he will find some data.

    Jim’s long comment doesn’t say anything about the sources of funding for the California “top-two” 2004 initiative.

  9. Jim Riley

    #9 See the July 2008 letters from the lawyers for Republican and Democratic parties to the State of Washington threatening all kinds of dire action if the Top 2 Primary happened. Presumably the parties were giving similar advice to candidates, sowing fear, uncertainty, and doubt.

    But the more important point is that candidates who want to actually be elected and not merely appear on the ballot, don’t simply wake up one morning and file for office. A credible candidate who considers challenging an incumbent would have already made a calculation whether the incumbent could be beaten in the primary. He may simply not want engage in the all party functions in order to get the nomination, and then campaign as a centrist in the general election. Possible backers may make similar calculations. If they think he is a nice guy, they donate $20. If they think he can win they donate $100.

    I wrote that Curtis Fackler came “much closer” to being elected than any of the independent or 3rd party candidates did in 2006.

    I didn’t discuss the 2006 senate election since there was no senate election in 2008 to compare it with. The three 3rd party and independent candidates for Senate in 2006 received collectively a bit over 3% of the total vote.

    I think you are misreading the California Top 2 law with regard to “ballot qualified” parties. As you know voters may currently register an affiliation with a non-qualified party. In fact, the only way short of a gargantuan petition drive to qualify as a party is to get sufficient persons to change their affiliation to a non-qualified party. The only way that a voter’s party affiliation may change is for the voter to be removed from the registration roll entirely, or for the voter to change his affiliation. There are still voters affiliated with the Natural Law Party years after it stopped actively participating in politics.

    The new law recasts the current “declaration of an intent to affiliate with a party at the next primary” with a “disclosure of party preference”, but does not change which parties have check boxes on registration forms, the numbers of registrants to be “ballot qualified”, etc.

    So a voter on his voter registration may disclose a preference for the SWP, Reform Party, Constitution Party, SalmonYoga Party, or Grange Party just as that voter may currently declare his intent to affiliate with the same at their next primary. If a voter has already made such a declaration, it will be converted to a disclosure of preference when the voter’s approve the Top 2 primary next June.

    Now look carefully at Section 17 of SB 6, which will become section 8002.5 of the Elections Code. This provides that a candidate may have his party preference that he disclosed on his registration appear on the ballot. So if a candidate had disclosed a preference for the SalmonYoga party on his voter registration, then he may have that preference appear on the ballot (this is optional – a candidate may also choose not to have his disclosed party preference appear on the ballot).

    Section 23 of SB 6, Elections Code Section 8121 also provides that the 10 year registration history of candidates be posted on the SOS web site. So if someone switches from the Democratic Party to the Grange Party, that history will be available to voters.

    I can’t see any other way of interpreting the law. So in fact the Top 2 proposal will make it easier for candidates who prefer the Reform Party or the Constitution Party or the Socialist Workers Party to have that preference shown on the ballot.

    Under SB 6, candidates for Congress, regardless of their disclosed party preference or lack thereof require 40 signatures from district voters to qualify for the ballot on which ALL voters may vote. Assuming a modest 100,000 votes, that is 0.04% or 1/250 of turnout.

    Sooner or later the federal courts are going to overturn premature election activities for federal offices. Given that the courts have determined that primaries are an integral part of the election process, early primaries interfere with the right of 18 YO, voters newly resident to the district, newly naturalized voters, and newly re-enfranchised felons to participate in the choosing of their representatives on the date designated by Congress. Given that the above groups tend to disproportionately minority voters, early primaries are racially discriminatory.

    In cases where there are only a couple of major candidates, they probably will spend limited amounts in the first round. In the case where there are several credible candidates, such as for an open office, then qualification for the general election will serve as a catalyst for fund raising.

    The sources of fund raising for the 2004 Top 2 initiative have nothing to do with the merits of the proposal that will appear on the ballot in 2010. I’ll presume that your claims are accurate, unlike the callously reckless claims made by the Oregon teachers union in 2008.

  10. NE

    Great response by Ballot Access News against the corrupt “top two” system! I can’t say that I am surprised that “Newsweek” is peddling it though. They also said that Iraq had WMD…

  11. NE

    Jonathan Alter’s Wikipedia article also says that he is, “an ardent proponent of torture” (with a link to Newsweek article of his).

    Not surprised that he supports the anti-democratic “top two” system!

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