California’s vote approving shift to 'top two' provokes scrutiny
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Published: 05-Aug-2010

CapitolBeatOK Staff Report

Published: 05-Aug-2010

Popular passage of a “Top Two” referendum in California is provoking nationwide scrutiny, some quite critical. In conjunction with the June 8 primary ballot in America’s most populated state, voters approved a referred measure (placed on the ballot by the Legislature) that will spark, beginning in 2011, dramatic change in that state’s system for electing government officials.

The Thicket, a blog affiliated with the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), summarized the pre-June system this way:

“Under the current, partially closed primary system, separate ballots are prepared for each political party. Voters select candidates from their own party's ballot, and the winning candidates are nominated onto the general election ballot. Parties determine whether unaffiliated voters may participate in their primary contests.”

The analysis by Tom Intorcio continued, “In a top two primary, all candidates, regardless of their party affiliation, appear on a single, consolidated ballot. Candidates have the option to add their party "preference" to their name on the ballot, or may decline to state a party preference. Voters may then vote for any candidate, regardless of the voter's and candidate's political party affiliation. The two candidates receiving the most votes advance to the general election. Unlike Washington's version, the new California law does not allow any write-in votes. Partially closed primaries will continue for presidential candidates and party organization offices.”

Implications of the change in California, where policy developments often impact political thinking elsewhere, are thought-provoking. As Intorcio wrote:

“In strongly Democratic or Republican districts, two candidates from the same party are likely to face off in the general election. In this way, the top two actually operates very differently from a primary to determine which candidate will represent a political party for a given office in the general election. Opponents argue that the top two is more analogous to a general election than a primary because the parties are effectively removed from being able to nominate their standard bearers. Moreover, the general election operates much like a runoff — again, often between two candidates of the same party.”

The proposal gained multi-partisan opposition. In addition to small party representatives, many leading conservatives – joined by liberal U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat – opposed the “top two” proposal.

While the top two system might seem unlikely to catch on in Oklahoma, the state’s prevailing policies making it difficult or impossible for political parties other than the “Big Two” to gain ballot status point to the state’s underlying legal bias against multi-party elections.

A leading opponent of the Top Two system is Christina Tobin, CEO and founder of the Free and Equal Elections Foundation. Tobin is the California Libertarian Party nominee for Secretary of State.

Her group was a co-sponsor of the Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy, which ended this week in San Francisco.

Tobin is affiliated with a cause known as “Stop Top Two” and is taking her message nationwide, Tobin told the forum. Tobin said, "StopTopTwo.org will be taking a new direction in California and will expand efforts against the spread of this bad reform to other states. The idea of the Top Two election system is already spreading quickly across the country and StopTopTwo.org is stepping up to the challenge of facing a national audience that deserves to be educated about this limited election system. StopTopTwo.org will take what has been happening in California and will share it nationwide in an effort to defend voter rights."

Leading up to the June 8 election, StopTopTwo.org was a comprehensive resource for information on Proposition 14, focused on voter education focused on what the group considers the dangers and flaws of a Top Two election system. Tobin urged voters to oppose Proposition 14. She said her StopTopTwo.org website is in the process of transitioning to the new focus of educating voters across the country about Top Two election systems.

Within weeks of the June election, public polls showed Proposition 14 would pass with 60% of the vote but, Tobin argues, the 53.7% final percentage showed that momentum had shifted toward a no vote. In an interesting twist to the election returns, Tobin says that results in several counties indicate that Proposition 14 was defeated by voters who went to the polls on Election Day, while it often carried among early voters.

“Early mail-in ballots were influenced by the millions spent by special interests in favor of Proposition 14,” Tobin said. The early ballots were also mailed before the news media did much reporting focused on what she called “the potential downfalls of the Top Two system.”

"We almost overcame being outspent by Governor Schwarzenegger and his rich friends 50 to 1," Tobin said. "The vote didn't turn out like we wanted, but this is hardly the end of our efforts in opposition of the Top Two system. StopTopTwo.org is not going to let up fighting against bad election laws."

Tobin continued, "We agree with the voters of California who are desperate for real changes and were willing to grasp at Proposition 14 before they learned more about it. Through these lawsuits and further outreach efforts, StopTopTwo.org will show the voters in California that there are better reforms than this."

Free & Equal describes itself as a nonpartisan, nonprofit, public-policy advocacy organization dedicated to protecting the rights of the politically marginalized and disenfranchised, particularly those of third party and Independent candidates.”

NOTE: Editor Patrick B. McGuigan contributed to this report.

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