"Our Country!
In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right;
but right or wrong, our country!"

    --Commodore Stephen Decatur

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Party Is Over

The New York Times reports today on the passage by plebiscite of Proposition 14 in California, which outlaws party primary elections for all offices except the Presidency and party leadership positions. As is often the case with public referenda, an initiative which was put directly to the people will in the end take power away from the same people who supported it.

Supporters for the initiative claimed that the "top two" primary system would promote more moderate candidates, but this flies in the face of all logic. Quite to the contrary, California’s new system will promote more extreme candidates in some areas, while at the same time diminishing voters’ choices and influence in the rest of the state.

In districts which lean heavily one way or the other, the dominant party can run multiple candidates with the hopes of blocking the other party from the general election. But this can backfire as we saw in the electoral oddity of Republican Charles Djou’s special election victory in Hawaii last month with only 39% of the vote. Under Hawaii’s normal election rules this fall, he won’t stand a chance against a unified Democratic party backing a single opponent in a strongly liberal district.

Conversely, in districts which are evenly balanced, the "top two" system will encourage each party to choose one candidate to support before the voice of the people can be heard. As we saw in the public and acrimonious internal struggle of the NY-23 special election, Republican leaders chose Dede Scozzafava, whom they perceived as the strongest candidate despite voters’ opposition. This led to disaster and embarrassment for conservatives when Democrat Bill Owens won with only 49% of the vote.

California has always been weird, but it now joins Washington and Louisiana as the only three states that allow voters to pick candidates from multiple parties during a primary. Although the Supreme Court heard a challenge to the system in 2008, it ruled that the Washington’s version was too new to draw any conclusions about its fairness.

Examples like the ones above show how the "top two" system will result in anomalous results which run contrary to the will of the people--results which are bound to be repeated in the coming years as Washington and California continue with their experiments in hyperpluralism. Although it is entertaining to see the underdog do well in sports, this is a dangerous trend for our system of representative government.

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