Everybody seems to be tamping down expectations for this week’s first ever “top two” primary in Washington state, but the biggest loser Tuesday night may be the top two primary itself. While Secretary of State Sam Reed and his cheerleaders on editorial boards throughout the state have hailed the advent of the top two as a huge victory for Washington’s voters, it’s proving much less popular in practice, with the 27% ballot return rate thus far significantly trailing Reed’s rosey turnout predictions.
Hmm. I wonder why?
In most cases, the outcome from Tuesday’s vote is in little doubt.
Yeah, it’s hard to get voters excited about a meaningless election, but that’s exactly what we have in almost every race on the ballot, where even the handful of hotly contested races will inevitably result in rematches come November. Indeed, with the exception of the State Treasurer’s race, where a field of three legitimate contenders will be winnowed down to two, I can’t think of a single meaningful result to watch for Tuesday night.
(Yeah, sure, some judicial races will be decided Tuesday night, but that was true of previous primary systems too.)
Oh, if one candidate substantially trounces another, it might tell us something about their prospects for the general, but absolutely nothing will be decided; the same folks facing off against each other Tuesday will face off against each other again eleven weeks from now. So why bother voting?
Well, the majority of WA’s registered voters won’t bother, which is a shame. And, inevitable.
The lesson to be learned from all this is that the top two is about as close a substitute for our old blanket primary as Cremora is a substitute for half and half. Sure, primary voters can split their ticket, choosing candidates from both parties without ascribing to any party identification themselves, but with the absence of party labels and the absence of any race with nomination battles in both parties, what’s the point? I suppose it could be argued that top two does have the advantage of eliminating the possibility of third party candidates serving as spoilers, but doesn’t that put control of our elections even more firmly in the hands of the two major parties? That’s not exactly what voters were promised.
And what happens in an off-year election, when Seattle’s 20-percent strong Republican minority finds itself in November with no Republicans on the ballot? Top-two has the potential to reduce turnout in a general election as well.
I suppose the solution favored by the wise old folks on our ed boards would be to simply make all our offices non-partisan, thus covering up top-two’s reduction in choice by reducing the relevant information available to voters. Sure, if they really wanted to give voters more choice they could push for innovative electoral reforms like Ranked Choice Voting, but honestly, all our ed boards really seemed interested in doing was delivering a big, spiteful “fuck you” to the parties for challenging the beloved blanket primary in the first place.
Job well done. Now let’s deal with the consequences instead of pretending there aren’t any.