Markos Moulitsas: No one wins with ‘top two’

Markos Moulitsas: No one wins with ‘top two’

Proponents of “top-two” primary elections have recently gone on the offensive, looking to spread California’s disastrous system to the rest of the country. New York Sen. Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerSenate confirms Trump judicial nominee criticized for being hostile to LGBT community Senate confirms Trump judicial nominee criticized for being hostile to LGBT community Democrats detail new strategy to pressure McConnell on election security bills MORE is an open supporter, and Maryland Rep. John Delaney has introduced legislation in the House mandating such primaries. 

A top-two system eliminates traditional party primaries, in which party supporters choose their own candidates for general election runs. With the top two, all candidates, from all parties, run together, and the top two vote-getters advance to a general election runoff. This is supposedly desirable because, as one supporter put it in an op-ed in The Sacramento Bee, “we are interested in making life better for our communities and our children and having a political system that is relevant and responsive.” 


If that sounds like pablum, that’s because it is. Empirical results show that the top-two system is a failure. 

Supporters like Schumer claim that a top-two system effectuates better government: California “was racked by polarization until voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2010 that adopted a ‘top-two’ primary system.” It’s true that the state had dysfunctional state government before 2010. But it wasn’t the electoral system that changed that. It was ending the requirement that budgets be passed with a two-thirds majority, as well as the election of Democratic supermajorities and the election of a Democratic governor. Once a Republican minority couldn’t block Democratic budgets, state government was unshackled. 

Schumer further claims that “the [top-two system] has had a moderating influence on both parties and a salutary effect on the political system and its ability to govern.” The fact is, California Republicans are just as radicalized as they’ve ever been — probably even more so today than in the past. The only difference is that now they’re in such a small minority they can do no harm and the state’s government can function smoothly. For further evidence disproving Schumer, look at the California U.S. House delegation — it’s just as polarized as the rest of the two parties in D.C. 

Top-two can also deliver unrepresentative governance, just like it did in California’s 31st Congressional District in 2012. That year, a large number of Democratic candidates ran in the open primary, splitting the majority liberal vote in so many ways that two Republicans advanced to the finals. How is a right-wing Republican representing a manifestly liberal district a service to democracy? It’s not. In fact, it makes a farce out of our representative system. 

What it means is that today, parties must limit the number of candidates who run in primaries. So rather than having an honest intraparty debate on who can best represent a district, the parties have to arm-twist candidates out of the race, lest they risk the opposition capturing the top two slots. 

In other words, the top-two system limits political participation; it doesn’t expand it. 

Most importantly, the top-two system kills voter participation. When arguing for top-two, advocates said that California’s 30 percent turnout in primaries was a sign that the existing system was broken. Well, after implementing it, turnout last year was at 18 percent. If 30 percent was bad, 18 percent is objectively far worse. 

Top-two was supposed to moderate elected officials, increase voter participation and reduce governing gridlock. It has done none of that. It isn’t just time for California to return to traditional party primaries, but also time to kill the entire concept outright. 

Moulitsas is the founder and publisher of Daily Kos.