Top Two to the rescue
Non-partisan primary system offers third parties a way to become engines for innovation
By Jason Olson 08/07/2013
Throughout American history, minor political parties have been important engines for policy innovation and expanded debate, and the American people respect and value their contribution.
But they do not want to join them.
Since 2000, the voter registration of the Green, Libertarian, and Peace & Freedom parties in California has declined or remained flat, even as the total number of registered voters in our state has surged by 1.6 million. Today, the voter registration total for these third parties combined is a scant 1.6 percent of the electorate. In contrast, the number of independent voters (now called “No Party Preference”) has exploded, from 14 percent of the electorate to 21 percent.
In an environment where Californians of all backgrounds and outlooks are defecting from the political parties, can third parties stage a comeback?
The answer is yes. And the “how” emerges from a very unlikely place: The Top Two Non-Partisan Primary, which voters passed despite the opposition of all California’s political parties — major and minor alike.
How could something described by the leadership of the state’s third parties as “a death sentence to the third parties” actually end up saving them? Unlike the old partisan system, the new Top Two Non-Partisan Primary system allows third parties to be relevant — if they want to be.
A little-known fact is that the third parties hardly run any candidates outside of the “big” races like governor or US senator. For instance, in 2010 (the last year of partisan elections that the third parties fought to defend), the Greens ran only five candidates out of the 100 state Legislature races. With so few candidates run by the third parties, under the old partisan system their voters faced mostly blank ballots in the primary. Third party voters were literally registering themselves into irrelevancy when it came to making public policy in California. How long would anyone stay registered in a third party if they constantly faced mostly blank ballots in the primary and were irrelevant to policy making? The answer (according to voter registration numbers) is not very long at all.
With the Top Two Non-Partisan Primary system, voters — not parties — have real power. Under the new system, all candidates run against each other regardless of party affiliation in the first round. This means that there might be multiple Democrats, Republicans, Independents, Greens, Libertarians, etc. in any given race. Because candidates must now compete for all voters (instead of just their party base) in order to win, this gives groups of like-minded voters a lot of leverage. It’s this leverage that could catapult the third parties into political relevancy and growth.
How would it work?
Again, let’s use the Greens as an example. In the first round of voting they could run a candidate if they had one (and that candidate would likely be in the debates as were most in 2012). If they did not have a candidate, or their candidate did not advance to the general election as one of the “top two,” they could then leverage their voter registration by running an endorsement process. Imagine a Green Party screening and endorsing process in one of the 19 Democrat vs. Democrat races in 2012. With no Republican to use as a bogeyman, the candidates would actually need the votes of those Green Party voters in order to beat the other Democrat. The Green Party could win powerful policy concessions on social justice, the environment, or economic reform in exchange for its endorsement of one of the candidates.
The new Top Two Nonpartisan system also incentivizes party building and third party voter registration activities. The more voters in the district who were registered Green, the more leverage the party could exert in local races. Thus it would mean something to register Green (without the voters having to sacrifice anything), and it would reward party chapters for doing the grassroots base building work which allows them to influence the mainstream, while still maintaining their Green identity.
In 2012, the first election under the new system, my organization of independent voters, IndependentVoice.Org, did just that. We are not a party, but a voter association. We selected a number of key races around the state, worked to meet with all the candidates, and told them about the concerns independent voters have over a broken political process. Instead of just listening to the candidates’ talking points, we told them to listen to us for a change. We offered our endorsement to the candidates most willing to do what’s best for the people, not the political parties. The results were astounding. Many candidates met with us and offered to support important political reforms that their own parties opposed! We even helped unseat an incumbent Democrat hostile to political reform by supporting his reform-minded Democratic opponent in the general election (something that wasn’t even possible under the old partisan system).
Everyone agrees that the third parties are stuck in neutral. The Top Two Non-Partisan Primary system offers third parties a way to reposition themselves for the 21st century as engines for innovation and new ideas. They should grab it and run with it!
Jason Olson is the director of IndependentVoice.Org, an advocacy group for independent voters and political reforms that empower them. IndependentVoice.Org was a key member of the coalition to pass the Top Two Non-Partisan Primary and Redistricting Reform in California.