Arizona Republic: Top-two primary no magic pill

This article was written in the Arizona Republic:

by Robert Robb

A little honesty and sobriety about the top-two primary system initiative that apparently will be on the November ballot is in order.

The purpose of the initiative should be stated plainly and bluntly: It is to reduce the influence of conservative Republicans in Arizona.

The rhetoric used to sell it will be more lofty. There will be a pretense of deploring extremism on both sides of the political divide.

But what’s driving the initiative isn’t a concern that the Democrats who get elected in Arizona are too liberal. It’s a call-to-arms reaction to a bone-deep belief that the Republicans who run Arizona are too conservative.

According to proponents, the top-two primary system is the magic pill that will put an end to that. The Arizona Legislature of some people’s nightmare will be a thing of the past. Replacing it will be the Arizona Legislature of their dreams – a place dominated by moderates, drinking tea while civilly pondering the future, intuiting bottom-up consensus on the issues of the day and enacting them into law.

We’ve been here before. Proponents have claimed that previous initiatives were the magic pill that would transform Arizona politics.

In 1998, it was allowing independents to vote in Arizona party primaries and public financing of campaigns. In 2000, it was an independent redistricting commission to draw the lines.

The result? Today, Arizona has the most conservative Legislature in its history.

Is there any reason to believe that the top-two primary system is a more potent magic pill?

Some. But not much.

Under the top-two primary system, all candidates irrespective of party affiliation run against each other in the primary.  The two candidates getting the most votes in the primary would run off against each other in the general election, again irrespective of party affiliation.

The theory is that voter participation in the primaries will go up, particularly among independents. Moderates will thus have a greater chance of getting to the general election ballot and winning.

Proponents of the top-two primary system have the mistaken belief that the distribution of political sentiment is a Bell Curve and they reside on its apex. Instead, the distribution of political sentiment is more like a straight line that tilts to the right.

The distribution of political intensity is more like a two-humped camel, bulging at the center of liberal and conservative viewpoints.

In a top-two primary system, there might be some increase in primary turnout among independents and moderates will have somewhat of a better chance of making it to a general election. But for the most part, the same people will probably be voting in the primary elections and choosing the same kind of candidates.

California recently held its first primary under the top-two system and voter turnout didn’t increase a bit.

If the Arizona initiative provided for true nonpartisan primaries, it would be unobjectionable irrespective of its consequences. When a third of Arizonans are opting out of the partisan political system by registering independent, it’s impossible to justify continued taxpayer-financed preferential ballot access for political parties.

But the Arizona initiative doesn’t provide for true nonpartisan primaries. Party labels are permitted on the primary election ballot. And then there is a goofy provision that permits candidates to make up their own party label for the ballot.

There will also be significant unintended consequences.  The party with more candidates in a primary is at a great disadvantage. So the parties will attempt to winnow the candidate field — not in an open, transparent primary, but outside the electoral process. While the target is conservative Republicans, Democrats are likely to be the big losers, with a real potential of not having candidates for statewide offices make it to the general election ballot.

While perhaps marginally more consequential, the two-top primary will probably prove another disappointing attempt to change election outcomes by changing the rules. There’s really no substitute for better candidates running better campaigns.


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