Opinion: Washington’s Top-Two Primary system is blatantly counterproductive

Photo credit: Seamus Allen

Everyone knows our “Great American Democracy” is broken, having slowly devolved from a grand experiment in freedom to echo chambers and ever-increasing partisanship. Between gerrymandering, the electoral college, and our first-past-the-post voting system, we’ve certainly got a mess on our hands. Even so, it’s important to remember that making it worse is very much possible. Here in Washington State, we’ve been proudly doing just that since 2003.

There are a lot of perturbations of democracy out there, and while many are far worse, few are as blatantly counterproductive as our Top-Two Primary system, which we’ll employ, yet again, on Tuesday.

So, what is a Top-Two Primary? A Top-Two Primary is like any other primary: an election before the election to see who gets to be in the election. Unlike most primaries, it isn’t each political party choosing their nominee: it is all of the candidates, piled together on one list, and everybody picks their favorite from that list. The top two from the primary (hence the name) face off in the general election in November. The idea behind it is to decrease partisanship and polarization, but before we give it too much credit, let’s dig into the details of how it would accomplish that.

Under this system, there is a possibility you wind up with two Republicans or two Democrats on the ballot in November. The idea is that if that were to happen, the other party would have to choose the more moderate of the two candidates, and voila! Polarization defeated.

Let’s just go over that one more time: the way that this system “improves things” is to make people choose between two candidates they don’t support. Whoop-de-doo.

That would be questionable enough on its own, but where the system gets nasty is how you might wind up with two republicans or two democrats running. You see, in a top-two primary system, if more candidates from one party run than the other, they can split their vote and wind up with no one on the ballot despite receiving a majority of the votes.

This exact scenario played out in the 2016 race for Washington’s State Treasurer. Two Republicans, Duane Davidson and Michael Waite, ran against three Democrats: Marko Liias, John Paul Comerford, and Alec Fisken. The Republicans received a total of 48.4% of the vote, while the Democrats totaled 51.6%. However, because the Democrat’s vote was split three ways (20.3%, 17.9%, and 13.2%) and the Republicans only two ways (25.1% and 23.3%), we wound up with two Republicans on the ballot in November. The majority of voters, who voted Democrat, only had Republicans to vote for.

What this means is that if you want a Democrat to win, you want there to be as few Democrats as possible on the ballot. This actively discourages candidates from running—they’re risking splitting their party’s vote. Candidates of the same party have to compete in a sort of high-profile staring contest to see who drops out as not to split the vote, and you get a far less diverse pool of candidates as a result.

The funny thing is, this is precisely what primaries are designed to avoid—to narrow down the field to one politician per party so that no one has to worry about splitting the vote. So not only does the Top-Two primary occasionally give voters no choice of party in the general election, but it also wholly fails at being a primary in the first place. All this is not to say that a party-based primary system is a good thing, of course—that has plenty of its own problems. But at the very least, it serves the function of a primary.

There are solutions to these problems of primaries, polarization, and partisanship, such as Ranked Choice Voting (which I’ve written about in the past). If we’re not going to embrace common-sense solutions like RCV, however, let’s for the love of our “Great American Democracy” at least not embrace asinine ones like Top-Two.