More on the Top-Two Primary

Eric McGhee, the author of the PPIC report I discussed in my previous post, sends along the following:

As the author of the Public Policy Institute of California’s report on primary reform mentioned in John’s and Andrew’s posts, I thought I would chime in with some thoughts of my own in light of my research.
Andrew argues that “even a few crossover legislators of each party and a few centrist candidates running and winning election might make a big difference in how the legislature operates.” I think this is an excellent point, and one that I hear often in the context of California. The most important vote in the California legislature is the budget, and observers often argue that primary reform will be successful if it can produce enough moderates to ease the budget negotiations.
Nonetheless, there are reasons to be skeptical. First, under California’s last experiment with primary reform—the “blanket” primary—the budget was about as late as ever, suggesting the negotiations were no easier. Moreover, the biggest effects of the blanket were for Democrats in the State Assembly, but the 2/3 threshold for passing the budget makes Republicans the critical votes. If they don’t become more moderate in sufficient numbers and to a sufficient degree, there will continue to be a struggle every year.
A similar point can be made about health care reform in the U.S. Congress. There were already quite a few cross-party moderates on that bill—the 34 Democrats who voted “no”! If the Democratic leadership wanted an easier vote, the surest path would have been more partisanship, not more moderation.
Andrew’s larger point, however, still stands. Politics is often about big, important events. If a legislator behaves like a hardened partisan on every bill, but then crosses party lines to support (or oppose) health care reform, do we care about the other bills? How much more meaningful is the one vote on health care, as opposed to the dozens of snoozers? I don’t think that we, as a discipline, have good answers to those questions.
My own feeling is that voters would expect primary reform to produce more than accommodation on a handful of bills, even if the bills are important ones. They want a general change in the tone of politics, and that is best measured by broader patterns of behavior. Anything less and they will feel disappointed. I might be suffering from Henry’s “me, the people” disease on this point, but I’ll leave it to others to decide for themselves.

3 Responses to More on the Top-Two Primary

  1. Joel March 25, 2010 at 3:58 pm #

    If the California blanket primary referenced here included the one I experienced, in 2000, I don’t think it helps the argument much. Though all the names were listed on one ballot, your vote only counted if you were registered – 30 days in advance – for the party for which you were casting your vote(s).

    Thus, it was actually harder to “crossover” in that primary than it is in, say, even year Texas primaries. While Texas primaries are technically “closed,” the way you establish party membership every two years is to … vote in the primary. So, the even-year Republican primary essentially becomes one big crossover opportunity for Democrats interested in influencing the statewide elections for the next two years. Hypothetically.

  2. Eric McGhee March 25, 2010 at 4:13 pm #

    Joel, I think you’re remembering the *presidential* primary of 2000. The national parties threatened to turn away delegates from California to the national convention if they were elected under the blanket, so the system you describe was implemented as a compromise: voters could cast a ballot for any candidate of any party, but your vote only counted if you were a registered member of that party. But that was only for president. crossover votes were counted for all other offices.

  3. Joel March 26, 2010 at 10:15 am #

    Eric, Yes, thanks for the correction. Being motivated by the presidential primary myself, that had affected my recollection.