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Top Two Reasons To Reject The Top Two Primary

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What if you opened up your November ballot - and discovered that your only two choices for Attorney General were both Republicans? Or that your two only choices for Lieutenant Governor were both Democrats?

If Proposition 14 were already in effect, there's a real possibility that such an outlandish outcome could occur.

Here are the top two reasons to reject Prop 14, also called the "Top Two" Primary. First, Prop 14 will stifle political competition and debate. Second, Prop 14 will deprive voters of a full range of candidate choices.

At first blush, Prop 14's lofty premise - its backers believe it will reduce political gridlock - sounds seductive. And who could blame them for being frustrated at our state government's shameful political paralysis? However, Prop 14 would throw the baby out with the bathwater.

By doing away with party primaries, Prop 14 would allow voters to vote for any candidate from any party. Basically, every state and congressional candidate would be pitted against one other in a June primary election. Then, the top two finishers would advance to a November runoff election.

Yet before rushing to judgment, let's consider four critical questions about Prop 14's Top Two Primary:

1. Who votes in the all-important June primary? With Top Two, the June primary would restrict everyone's choices in November. In 2008, only 22 percent of the electorate voted in the June primary; those voters were, on average, wealthier and less representative of California as a whole. In contrast, nearly 80 percent voted in the November general election. Is it good policy to allow a small minority to dictate the only two choices that voters will have in November?

2. Has the Top Two Primary worked anywhere else? In 2008, Washington State adopted Top Two. Instead of increasing competition, Top Two produced a litany of lopsided outcomes. In fact, only five of 98 state House races were decided by a competitive margin (defined as a 4-percentage-point difference between the top two candidates). What's more, 65 races (66 percent) were won by runaway margins of 20 points or higher. Such one-sided outcomes do not bode well for California.

3. How will write-in and independent candidates fare under the Top Two Primary? In November 2004, a write-in candidate was almost elected San Diego Mayor in a Top Two runoff election. Nevertheless, Prop 14 takes the extreme step of banning all write-in candidates from the November ballot. What's more, since third-party candidates rarely place first or second, Prop 14 will effectively shut out independent candidates from the November ballot.

4. Will Top Two increase voters' choices? Let's take the red-hot California Attorney General race, which features at least six Democrats and three Republicans. With the Top Two primary, it's entirely possible that Democrats would be shut out from November's Attorney General ballot. Indeed, in a six-way race, the Democratic vote could splinter six ways. As a result, only the top two Republican candidates - and no Democrats - would advance to the November general election.

To prevent such an undemocratic (pun intended) outcome, Democratic leaders would be forced to do something very undemocratic: they would "persuade" at least three of the six Democratic candidates to pull out of the June primary. That would hand even more power to party leaders and interest groups from business, labor, and other sectors. So much for giving voters more choice.

Before we adopt yet another misguided measure, let's first take stock of all our options. In 2008, voters approved Proposition 11, which may make our state elections more competitive, starting with the 2012 election. It would be prudent to wait and see how Prop 11 works.

Moreover, we should take a closer look at other ways to resuscitate our state government: reforming our runaway initiative process, streamlining our elections with Instant Runoff Voting (endorsed by CA Attorney General candidate Ted Lieu and CA Governor candidate Tom Campbell), and reducing the power of lobbyists and special interests (by modifying term limits).

Haste makes waste. It makes no sense to give any party a monopoly in our elections, and thus silence the voices of millions of voters. It makes no sense to rashly embrace the latest political fad, especially one that hasn't worked. It makes every sense for voters to reject Prop 14.