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Eliminate Jungle Primaries

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One policy many voting reform advocates like are top-two primaries. But they are terrible because they don’t actually give voters choices. What you often see is the situation we now have in Washington, where the top two primary winners for the office of state treasurer are Republicans because two Republicans ran and three Democrats ran and so the vote was more split on that side. That’s hardly an improvement for some pure idea of democracy that so many voting reform advocates turn into a fetish. The Daily Kos Elections people rip this system apart.

On Friday, Washington’s secretary of state certified the results of the state’s Aug. 2 primaries, cementing an atrocious and under-reported outcome in this year’s open treasurer’s race. Thanks to Washington’s top-two primary, a pair of Republicans will advance to the November general election, meaning no voter will be able to cast a ballot for a Democrat—this in a state that hasn’t voted for a Republican for president since the Reagan landslide of 1984.

In fact, Washington hasn’t elevated a Republican to the treasurer’s office since 1952, when Republican Charles Maybury won a 1-point squeaker the same year Ike was cruising to victory. That trend should have and would have continued this year, had a perfect storm of suck not materialized, as just two Republicans ran for treasurer along with three Democrats. Under the top-two system, all candidates run together on a single primary ballot, and the two highest vote-getters move on to the general election, regardless of party. And because that trio of Democrats managed to split the vote ever so precisely, the two GOP candidates were able to take the top two slots, though it was very close.

As a consequence, the final battle will take place between Benton County Treasurer Duane Davidson, who wound up in first with 25 percent of the vote, and finance executive Michael Waite, the runner-up with 23. The top Democrat was state Sen. Marko Liias, who took finished just out of the money with 20 percent, while pension consultant John Comerford grabbed 18 and former Port of Seattle Commissioner Alec Fisken ended with 13. In other words, even though primary voters backed Democrats by a 52-48 margin overall, they won’t get the chance to back a Democrat in the fall.

We’ve seen this same phenomenon before, but this is the first single-party statewide election ever to take place in Washington. That’s just terrible for democracy. California also uses a top-two primary, and there, polls show that many Republican voters simply plan to sit out this year’s Senate race between Democrats Kamala Harris and Loretta Sanchez. But at least we know that California, a very blue state, would likely have elected a Democrat to succeed retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer anyway. Washington, by contrast, almost certainly would have voted in another Democrat as treasurer, so the situation here is particularly perverse.

Supposed “good-government” reformers naïvely believed that eliminating partisan primaries would somehow crank down partisan gridlock by forcing office-seekers to moderate their views in order to win. Not only has that not happened, but voters have repeatedly been denied the opportunity to vote for the party of their choice thanks to debacles like these. It’s long past time for proponents to acknowledge their mistake and advocate for a return to proper primaries—and proper democracy.

I have to admit that I find the “good government” people really annoying, from the Progressives to a lot of voting reform advocates today, because policy positions and results take a back seat to abstract ideas of democracy as the ultimate goal. But the problem is that in the real world, such ideas are easily perverted, as we see here. And really it isn’t any better in California, where Kamala Harris and Loretta Sanchez are the two Democrats running for the Senate. In this case, this could have easily been taken care of in a real party primary and the Republicans would have representation in the general election. It hasn’t less to more moderation among candidates and it hasn’t led to individual policymaker over political party. Here’s another lengthy discussion on the disaster that is the jungle primary.

I simply see no benefit to top-two primaries. And I see a lot of downside, with voters actually disfranchised simply because more ego-driven politicians decided to split the vote of one of the parties, thus ensuring that both finalists were from the other party. Explain to me how this is a good end.

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