Top-two primary faces long odds

Top-two primary faces long odds
Proponents of the system are now in a court battle in Arizona.

Despite some positive reviews from political consultants in California, the so-called top-two primary system doesn’t appear poised to spread to other states anytime soon.

Along with California, versions of the system are in place in Louisiana and Washington State. It allows the top-two vote getters in a primary election to move onto the general, regardless of party affiliation.     

In Arizona, the prospect of a question on November’s ballot that would seek approval of a top-two primary is now before the state’s Supreme Court. Opponents of the ballot question won a victory in a lower court late last week when a Maricopa County judge said the proposal violated a state requirement that says ballot questions must deal with only a “single subject.”

Proponents of the top-two system have appealed to the state Supreme Court, which could rule on the matter as early as this week. The expectation, as echoed by some Arizona state legislators, is that the measure will fall short of the ballot this fall.   

“If there is one area where Arizona courts do not hesitate to throw an initiative off the ballot, it is when there is a reasonable argument that the initiative violates the state constitution’s separate amendment rule,” says Arizona State Rep. Justin Pierce, vice chairman of the legislature’s Government Committee.   

The battle over the prospect of a top-two system has raged throughout the summer in Arizona. Advocates for top-two say the system would open up the governing process and force candidates to reach across both sides of the aisle in their attempt to secure votes.

Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, who has helped fight the proposal in court, says the measure violates the state constitution by attempting to substantively alter several aspects of how the state conducts elections. Montgomery, who sounds confident the measure won’t make it on the November ballot, also rejects the argument that top-two paves the way for a more democratic process.  

“An open primary does not guarantee that kind of result,” says Montgomery. “They’re trying to manage voter behavior and I think that’s elitist.”    

Even if the question isn’t before Arizona voters this fall, it’s a fight that’s likely to continue into next cycle as supporters have vowed to push the measure again. And given the recent implementation of top-two in California, the debate is expected to start spreading to other states.    

The back and forth in Arizona only serves to underscore the dynamic many political strategists expect will characterize the top-two debate. While it may be possible to build momentum for the idea among consultants, winning over state lawmakers will be an altogether tougher challenge.

“From a financial standpoint, it’s better for [consultants],” says Republican pollster Jim McLaughlin. “It might not be so good for the candidates.” 

The new top-two system in California has led to what Democratic strategist Richard Schlackman calls “a goldmine” for political consultants. Between the new primary system and a more competitive electoral map post-redistricting, consultants in California have seen a flood of additional business.  

Case in point is the race between two congressional incumbents forced together by the new map. Under the old rules, the fight between Democratic Reps. Richard Berman and Brad Sherman would have been decided back in June. Now, it extends until November as the two congressmen have progressed, guns blazing, under the top-two rule.

Eliminating the party nominations for every office except president means that, even in the deep blue North Bay suburbs of California or in solid red San Diego County, there’s an invigorated contest for votes.

Democratic media strategist Dave Heller, who heads Main Street Communications, agrees that a top-two primary system can be great for business. The problem when it comes to getting state legislatures and other lawmakers on board with the idea, he says, is that the system stands to upend otherwise safe incumbents.

“[The system] is worse for anyone in a safe seat that is facing opposition in a general and the same goes for a primary,” Heller says. “This is certainly the case in Arizona where the majority of candidates are considered safe.”

There are also questions of strategy that are fundamentally altered by a top-two system. For one, campaigns have to spend money early and often to define themselves and their opponents while still ensuring they can raise enough to compete through the fall.

“There’s no question that [candidates] are going to have to be more conscientious of where they’re spending money and how they’re using resources,” says McLaughlin.

In California, the top-two primary also applies in state Assembly and Senate races, where spending has exploded. Four years ago, candidates spent $23.2 million in the primaries for state legislative races, according to a tally by the California Secretary of State’s office. In 2012, the amount spent almost doubled to $43.6 million.

Arizona-based media consultant Keith Woods doesn’t think approving top-two in Arizona will have a “tremendous impact” on outcomes. But, he says, media strategy would become more crucial than ever.

Additional reporting by Sean J. Miller

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