California's top-two primary: Don't judge too quickly

The top-two primary system should be judged by how well the Legislature works, not by how centrist it is

A group of studies published Sunday by the California Journal of Politics & Policy found that the state's relatively new top-two primary system hasn't pushed voters toward more centrist-oriented candidates. The news cheered partisan loyalists, who miss the power their parties once enjoyed over elections here.

California in 2010 abolished the traditional partisan primary, in which voters of each party selected their candidate, and the winners faced each other in a general election. Under the top-two system, all candidates, regardless of party, compete in a first-round election. Voters choose between the two top vote-getters in a runoff.

The new studies are skeptical about the benefits. But before declaring the top-two primary a failure, a mere four years (and only two statewide election cycles) after adopting it, let's keep several things in mind.

First, it's early. Especially with this kind of reform, change comes after a number of elections and among candidates not already in office after having been groomed and elected under the old system.

Second, the real point of this reform was to loosen the stranglehold the entrenched political establishment had over campaigning, elections and lawmaking.

It was hoped that because they had to appeal to a broader group of voters — including independents and members of other parties — politicians might be more likely to break from their caucuses or create productive relationships such as the one the very liberal Democrat Edward M. Kennedy enjoyed with the very conservative Republican Orrin Hatch in the U.S. Senate.

Somewhere along the way, though, proponents of 2010's Proposition 14 found it useful to market their reform as a plan to promote politicians with more centrist positions. That was always a questionable goal. Voters ought to be able to choose representatives who embrace their views, even if they veer far from the center. There is a difference between a bunch of middle-of-the-road lawmakers and a body of principled thinkers who can broker useful agreements despite ideological differences. The success of top-two should be judged by how well the Legislature works, not by how centrist it is.

Don't the early signs look good? Budgets are balanced and on time after years of chaos. Californians have given the Legislature its highest approval ratings in years.

A result of top-two? It's more likely the result of companion reforms such as a 2010 measure to allow the Legislature to adopt a budget by majority vote instead of the former crippling two-thirds supermajority.

But top-two is part of the mix. The major parties want their clout back and will no doubt spotlight any negative consequences of the new primary format, but even the new studies present little reason to return the Democrats and Republicans to their former outsize roles in California elections.

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