Recently, Examiner.com held a debate on the question as to how democratic Top Two election systems are, such as California’s Proposition 14. Here is the winning statement of the case that Top Two systems can be highly democratic, given the appropriate supporting conditions.
TOP TWO and DEMOCRACY
It’s a law of nature that every “top” has a “bottom.” So I’ll start my discussion at the top, and then drop down to the other part.
For a democratic system to work well, the government must have a substantial degree of legitimacy in the opinion of the general public. As our Declaration of Independence says, we instituted our government “deriving [its] just powers from the consent of the governed.” If the government itself becomes destructive of these rights, “it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it.”
So, legitimacy with the public is the very foundation which our government, even today, stands upon. If this legitimacy is lost, or even diminished significantly, then there will be political trouble, like we have seen recently in the Middle East.
While every society has its share of unhappy and anti-social individuals, these can be kept to a minimum by following the principle of “majority rule.” Of course, our Constitution requires the government to respect the rights of minorities. But generally speaking, legitimacy will be preserved if the majority of the people feel that their will is being honored by the government.
That is why I say there is considerable political wisdom inherent in an election process that puts the final vote in a top two system. When the final vote is for either “A” or “B,” the winner will always be by a majority. If the final vote had three or four or five different candidates, the risk would be that none of them would receive a majority of votes. Then problems with legitimacy would be invited. Suppose “A” got 34% of the vote, and “B” and “C” each got 33%. “A” would be the winner, but not by a majority. In fact, 66%, a super majority, of the voters expressly preferred someone other than “A.” They would all be disappointed with the election’s results. This is foolishly asking for trouble.
Top Two’s Bottom
Candidates don’t simply appear, as if by magic, into a top two final contest. They arrive there as the result of an earlier, or “primary” process.
There are all sorts of ways to pick the last two candidates for the final vote. In theory, they could be appointed by a dictator, king, governor, or a legislative decree. But these methods get us back to the legitimacy issue. In a democracy, the people should be involved in choosing the entire field of candidates, both for the primary vote and for the general election (in which one of the top two is finally chosen).
Party Domination at the Bottom
One way to involve at least some of the people in selecting candidates is to have political parties nominate who they want to run. Each party would put its own candidates on the primary ballot, and the voters would decide from among these which two will go to the general election.
A downside to this is that people who are independent of any of the political parties have a much more difficult time becoming a candidate. They might have to conduct a write-in campaign, and these are almost never successful. Also, the party method of choosing candidates often produces partisan extremists, who don’t represent the will of the majority of all the people. California had these very problems, so in June of 2010 the voters passed Proposition 14.
Prop 14 takes away the special privileges that the political parties used to have. One of those privileges was to allow the parties to pick their own candidates, and then limit voting for its candidates in the primary to only party members. This resulted in around 3.4 million independents being excluded from voting for candidates in the primary.
But under Prop 14, every individual who wants to be on the primary ballot has an equal opportunity to do so. Each person can “self-select.” And the primary vote is also open to all. Clearly, the Prop 14 system of Top Two has both a democratic top and a democratic bottom.
William J. Kelleher, Ph.D.