I’m deeply skeptical of this.
In 2010, California voters approved getting rid of party-based primaries and adopting a “top-two” set-up, sometimes called a jungle primary.
This month, the state tried the new primary model in which candidates of all parties ran at once on the same ballot. The top two vote-getters for statewide, congressional and legislative offices — no matter which party — will face off in the general election in November.
The way the system is set up in California, a general election could pit a Democrat against a Republican, or it could be a contest between two Democrats or two Republicans. Smaller parties’ candidates also could end up on November ballots.
The idea behind the top-two primary system is to prevent the political discourse from racing to the extreme right or left and prevent voters on the ideological fringes from effectively electing candidates in the primaries.
Southern Methodist University political science professor Cal Jillson said the concern about the polarization of partisan primaries is a common theme, including in Texas.
The current system of partisan primaries in Texas has pushed Republican statewide candidates — who have won every election since the mid-1990s — to cater to the right wing of the party, resulting in the most conservative candidates being elected by a small portion of the overall electorate, he said.
Conversely, a top-two primary system could provide hope that more moderate candidates could be elected by the larger number of voters who turn out in general elections — and who tend to be more moderate than those who generally vote in primaries, Jillson said.
“All of the candidates will have to appeal to as many voters as possible, not just some partisan base,” Jillson said.
The Texas Legislature got a glimpse of similar legislation a few years ago.
In 2009, state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, introduced a bill that would have called for open primaries to elect members of the State Board of Education. She said the purpose of the bill, which never made it out of committee, was to make the elections more like those for local school boards.
Let me say up front that I have no philosophical objection to doing it California’s way, nor do I have any great interest in preserving the system we have here in Texas. Our system is what it is, and if there’s a “better” way of doing it, I’m all ears. That said, three things:
1. I absolutely reject the notion that there’s been any movement, let alone a “race”, the the “extreme left” in Democratic politics. I don’t even know what that might look like. The Republican electorate has moved so far to the right that it has a distorting effect on everything else. Maybe a top-two primary system will have a moderating effect on that, but suffice it to say that this remains to be seen.
2. A big part of the reason for my skepticism here is that turnout levels are even more intrinsic to primaries than they are to general elections. Look at how wildly turnout levels can fluctuate from one primary season to another. Part of the reason for that is it’s dependent on what offices have hot races in them, which is often a function of which seats are open. If we had a California-style primary this year, instead of having a David Dewhurst-Ted Cruz runoff for the GOP nomination, we’d almost certainly have Dewhurst and Cruz as the two nominees for November. Call me crazy, but I don’t see any moderation in that.
3. I believe redistricting would also have an outsized effect on the outcomes. California also approved a redistricting commission that was designed to take that process away from legislators and – in theory, anyway – make that process less ideological. Again, it’s not clear to me how the “top two” system is supposed to generate different outcomes in districts that are 65%+ one party or the other.
These are all theoretical concerns, because as the story points out the Republicans who run the state have no reason to change things in any way that may be to their political detriment. Unlike California, we don’t have legislation by referendum, which is how this system came about over there. We’ll see how it goes for them, but I don’t really expect it to make much difference, and if it does I don’t expect it to be adopted here anyway.