California’s revolutionary top-two nonpartisan system, adopted as Proposition 14 in 2010, is not revolutionary at all. In fact, it’s almost the exact system we have had in San Diego for a long, long time—except for two critical differences here:
--If a candidate gets more than 50 percent in the primary, we don’t even hold a general election. In other words, if a majority of voters who come out to the polls in the June primary agree on any one candidate, the general election voters don’t even matter.
--We don’t include the candidate’s party preference next to their name—so uninformed voters don’t know which party a candidate prefers.
Those are the two differences.
That’s all. And while the nonpartisan primary has significantly advanced the rights of voters, it’s not without critics.
Third-party advocates, for example, argue that voters in the general election are less likely to be exposed to ideas that are outside of the mainstream, because third-party and independent candidates are less likely to be one of the top two vote getters in June. Therefore, third-party and independent candidates are less likely to get into the general election debates. And they are less likely to influence the dialogue when the most people are listening.
Proponents of top-two nonpartisan primaries say the narrowing of the election to two candidates is good, because it prevents vote-splitting and allows the public to focus on the “viable” options. They also point to the fact that (and the California Supreme Court has agreed) every voter, candidate and party is treated exactly the same under the law.
What is undeniable, therefore, is for the first time in California history there are no special favors given to parties and their members that other voting citizens don’t get.
We could go back and forth all day about how third parties and alternative voices can or can’t use the power of coalition building to affect the dialogue, change the political discourse and earn their way into the top-two tier.
But that’s for a longer discussion.
At its foundation, elections are about serving individual citizens, regardless of their party preference. And now, parties and independent candidates are free to compete for the will of voters on a level playing field.
Removing the special rules and getting rid of the private primary process is not inapposite to the rights of political parties. In fact, those who believe in strong political parties should be the strongest advocates for removing their state-sponsored advantages.
If you’re trying to break up a duopoly in the marketplace, for example, that doesn’t mean you are anti-free market or antibusiness. In fact, it means you believe in a free market where businesses compete for customers on an equal playing field, not where the government decides what business it will prop up. So when the Independent Voter Project says that nonpartisan reform is necessary for better government, the suggestion is not aimed at getting rid of political parties. Rather, that political parties should compete on a level playing field to win the support of voters.
If a political party’s talking head goes on TV and says a top-two primary effectively eliminates minor parties from the process and reduces the amount of voice voters have, he or she would seemingly make sense.
That only makes sense, however, from the perspective of someone who thinks elections serve political parties first and voters second. It doesn’t hold water within the context of today’s political landscape.
The proper role of political parties is to bring forth ideas on public policy and how government should serve the people. However, the two major political parties have erected institutional barriers around the two major parties that have reduced their accountability to voters. In turn, they have put the power of choosing viable candidates into the hands of political insiders instead of voters. Think: gerrymandering, campaign finance and ballot access laws.
So today, as a result of these institutional barriers, more voters than ever have lost confidence in any political party to bring forth ideas on public policy that really serve the people. That’s why, on a national scale, the number of voters who self-identify as independent far outnumbers those who identify with either major political party. And here in San Diego, independent voters now outnumber Republicans by registration as well.
We should keep looking for ways to lower these institutional barriers, open the process to voters and encourage political parties to persuade voters into joining their team.
We can start right here in San Diego. As many people should know, San Diego has a 50-percent-plus-one rule that allows a local candidate to win the election in June, effectively eliminating voter choice in our local elections at the general election stage.
Nothing reduces voter choice in the general election like having no choice at all.
And nothing can be more destructive to our political discourse than ending the conversation before most voters start paying attention.