By Mark Wachtler
March 5, 2014. Santa Monica, CA. (ONN) Sold to voters as a way to increase participation in America’s apathetic democratic process, Top Two Voting has had the exact opposite effect, sure to lower voter turnout even beyond its already dismal participation rate. But that’s exactly what the Democrats and Republicans who drew it up knew would happen - the end of opposition party election candidates in the US.
Under Top Two Voting, participation of independents and 3rd party candidates has dropped from an avg. of 133 to 21, and 0 in the General Election. Image courtesy of SonoranAlliance.com.
The establishment non-profits with misleading organizational names that are pushing Top Two Voting are still insisting it has been a success. And it has, for them. They insist that ballot access is easier, but in reality it’s actually 66-times more difficult for an independent or opposition party candidate to qualify for ballot inclusion in California than before. And with 13 out of America’s 15 active political parties all but blocked from participation, common sense suggests that less parties participating equals less voters participating.
Top Two in California
In 2010, California’s Democrats and Republicans got their dream gift when powerful political entities with names like the Independent Voter Project launched a serious effort to enact Top Two Voting. Posing as an independent voter, IVP’s Chairman Steve Peace happens to be a former Democratic State Senator and current aide to San Diego Padres owner John Moores. He and his non-profit drafted and passed the devastating legislation in 2010 and it was used for the first time in 2012.
Under Top Two Voting, all candidates from all parties including independents, run in one gigantic field at the same time in the state’s Primary Election. All voters get to vote from the same all-inclusive list, typically including a bunch of Democrats and Republicans and a very small assortment of individual opposition party candidates like Greens, Peace & Freedom and Libertarians.
At the end of Primary day, only the top two vote-getters move onto the General Election where the contest is always limited to just those two individuals. Even if a candidate wins 99% of the primary vote, he or she must face the runner-up candidate again five months later in November. The biggest problem for opposition candidates is obvious - only the top two vote getters get to participate in the General Election. Who are the top two vote getters? Republicans and Democrats. In fact, in a full 28% of Legislative races in 2012, the November election was between two members of the same party, always Republicans or Democrats.
Poll tax and unrealistic requirements
Like everything else in America these days, if you’re rich you don’t have to worry about the rules. That’s the case in California’s election system. ‘According to the official ballot title and summary, Proposition 14 was written to "encourage increased participation in elections" and "give voters increased options in the primary." The measure has had the opposite effect, making it harder and more expensive for minor party candidates to qualify for the primary election ballot,’ the Peace & Freedom Party recently quoted a local publication, ‘That’s because, under the new system, minor party candidates must collect a substantially higher number of signatures or pay a sizable filing fee.’
The California-based Peace & Freedom Party explains that under the old election system, candidates could submit 150 signatures from registered party members to qualify for the Primary ballot. Now, to avoid the substantial filing fee for candidates, they must collect 10,000 valid petition signatures from all voters. “I don’t believe voters would have approved of Proposition 14 had they been told about its negative impacts upon our democracy," said former Green Party Mayor of Santa Monica Michael Feinstein, "This increase is having a chilling effect on democracy in California."
Adding insult to injury and suggesting California lawmakers are pulling the state’s election system into their own out-of-touch world, the Top Two Voting law sets the fee for candidates to bypass signature collection at, “two percent of the first-year salary" of state officeholders and "one percent of the first-year salary" of State Senators and Representatives. In 2014, the ballot access fee ranges from $2,600 to $3,500.
The account reports, ‘For the June 2014 primary, it will cost parties $235,000 to field a candidate for every state and federal office. Last year, the Green Party of California raised $14,153, according to its most recent campaign finance report.’ The report details another way opposition and independent candidates are being shut out, ‘To include a ballot statement in the California Voter Guide, it costs candidates $25 per word, or $6,250 for a full 250 word statement.’
The results of Top Two Voting
After the first round of Top Two Voting in California in 2012, voters saw the real results of the law, and it was exactly what its proponents promised - an end to opposition candidates, or ‘extremists’ as they were called. The report states, ‘Since 1992, small parties have averaged a combined 133 candidates on the ballot in California. In 2012, they cumulatively only ran 21 candidates, the lowest minor party total since 1966 - when no minor parties were on the ballot.’
How did those 21 opposition party and independent candidates fair in California’s General Election? They didn’t. Not one of them qualified for the November election. In a tip of the hat to the Peace & Freedom Party, while not one of the Green and Libertarian Party candidates moved on from the Primary to the General Election, three Peace & Freedom Party candidates made an end-run and qualified for the November election by running write-in campaigns in specific, targeted districts during the Primary.
It’s probably not surprising that a link provided by the League of Women Voters to the California Secretary of State website touting all the benefits of Top Two Voting is mysteriously offline now. But the group responsible for Top Two Voting, the Independent Voter Project, is still proclaiming the law’s success, as well as their own.
Casting an ominous shadow over the rest of the site, IVP’s home page starts out by taking personal responsibility for the nationwide spike in US voter participation during Barack Obama’s historic run for President in 2008. The site proclaims, ‘By educating voters about the steps needed to participate in primary elections, IVP has successfully increased independent voter turnout in California’s elections. IVP conducted extensive research and experimental voter education programs targeted at independent voters in 2006, 2008, 2010, and 2012. From the 2006 to 2010 midterm elections, IVP increased independent voter turnout by 419,917 voters.’
Voter turnout and rematches
A Los Angeles Times report from 2012 paints a different picture. According to the outlet, voter turnout after the first election using Top Two Voting was a dismal 30% in the June Primary Election. In the piece, the outlet quotes IVP’s Steve Peace guaranteeing that the General Election turnout would be much higher. In reality, it’s impossible to tell. At the same time Top Two Voting was implemented, mail-in voting caused participation to spike with over 50% of ballots cast by mail.
Another controversy arose when winners of the June Primary were forced to face the same person in the November General Election. If a candidate wins over 50% of the vote in the Primary, why have a repeat election in November knowing that candidate will get that or more? Fiscal hawks looking to save money suggest that if a candidate wins a majority in the Primary, there’s shouldn’t be a rematch five months later.
Supporters of Top Two Voting argue against that idea, insisting that they gave the concept a great deal of thought. The first problem is that Congress and the federal government only recognizes the November General Election. All primaries are in reality, nothing more than votes by clubs and groups to see who will get to run in the real election in November. That notion was verified by the US Supreme Court.
Additionally, it gives the establishment two chances to keep opposition and reform candidates out of office. Surely, the drafters of the law imagined large Primary fields of dozens of candidates. That’s the obvious result when you go from multiple ballots with a few names each to one ballot with all the names from all the parties combined. Out of that blur, a pleasant sounding first and last name is sure to emerge in first or second place occasionally in the form of a reformer. Rather than being the surprise winner in the General Election like in the past, those candidates now have to run again against a united Democrat-Republican nominee in November where the establishment can focus all their money and might.
So while the supporters of Top Two Voting promised a system that was easier for candidates to qualify for the primary ballot, a more open election system, higher voter turnout and a better democracy, the opposite has proven to be the result. Critics and supporters can debate how much of a factor mail-in voting had versus Top Two. But they can’t argue the result that independents and opposition party candidates have been virtually driven out of California’s election process. If voters wanted fewer ideas, fewer advocates and fewer honest politicians, Top Two Voting got them just that.
For more information, read the report republished by the Peace and Freedom Party.
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