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The Top-Two Verdict: Little Gains, Plenty of Costs

The top-two system produced few little gains -- not nearly enough to make up for its costs.

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Opinion: Top-Two Verdict: Little Gains, Plenty of Costs

Brad Sherman and Howard Berman square off during a public appearance.

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It's time to ditch the new top-two system for California elections.

Even analysts sympathetic to the top two can't point to any significant changes in the election. The Public Policy Institute of California, in its review, found some very modest gains in competitive races, though this was done by the top-two mechanism of producing races between two candidates of the same party in districts that would have hosted less competitive races than in the past. But that's about it.

None of the other promises of top-two supporters came to fruition. There was no measurable increase in engagement in state races (indeed, the first round of elections in June showed widespread disengagement, with the lowest turnout of any presidential primary in history). Moderates and independents weren't advantaged, and partisanship and incumbents weren't hurt.

In fact, the biggest news of the election was the advance of Democratic partisans, who now appear to hold a supermajority in both houses of the legislature (this outcome, if it demonstrates anything, suggests that the rich moderates and independents who backed the top two didn't know what they were doing).

And top two had real costs. The first was in money; with more two-round races, especially the ones involving candidates of both parties, there were increases in campaign spending and fundraising. Harder to measure, but visible to the naked eye, were the longer, harsher campaigns in these races. The contest between Congressmen Brad Sherman and Howard Berman represented nothing so much as a blood bath. 

Few of the analysts of the process account for the biggest costs with top two: the ending of party primaries and the resulting lack of choice for partisans. Republicans in Democrat vs. Democrat races can no longer vote for a candidate of their own party in November, and vice versa.

Small party members are shut out in November, as well. The end of party primaries -- it's false to call the top two the "top-two primary" since it is the opposite of a primary -- also has weakened California's already weak political parties, a serious problem since political parties are the best tools we have for political engagement.

There was some good news in the elections. Redistricting disrupted incumbents, by pitting them against each other. And online voter registration seems to have given a boost to participation. Both of those changes seem likely to stick around. Unfortunately, with little critical reporting on top two, it seems likely to stick around too.

Let's hope California's good government community comes to its senses and takes a clear-eyed look at the evidence. Louisiana and Washington state have shifted to top two -- with no discernible positive impact on their politics. And, unfortunately, other states, unaware of the costs, are considering top two. The good news is that Arizona voters turned down top two.

And when Arizona is wiser than your state, you have a problem.

Lead Prop Zero blogger Joe Mathews is California editor at Zocalo Public Square, a fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for Social Cohesion, and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (University of California, 2010).

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