Wednesday, August 24, 2011
Magical Thinking about Top Two Elections
The Hankster recently posted an article that mentioned Washington state’s new top two general election, which is preceded by an open primary. Upon clicking the link I found my friend Richard Winger having another one of his automatic fits triggered by the words “top two.” Top two, if not the root of all evil, at least is the bane of third parties, and the friend of incumbents.
But upon close examination, anyone can see that Richard is espousing unscientific mysticism, or magical thinking.
There is no causal relationship of any sort between a top two process for taking the final vote on candidates for office, and favoritism for incumbents or bias against minor parties.
There is only one causal relationship attributable to the final top two vote: namely, the winner receives a majority of the votes.
Richard’s argument that top two is biased against third parties and favors incumbents is pure voodoo. The causes of incumbents repeatedly winning re-election are well-known in political science. Incumbents have forged strong connections with the needed elites in their district. Incumbents generally have more campaign money, more name recognition, more activists in their campaigns, and easier access to the local media. Third parties regularly loose elections because they lack all the advantages of incumbency.
Gerrymandered districts also contribute to incumbent advantage. Party primaries are an additional factor that favors incumbents, because incumbent enthusiasts are more likely to turn out for primaries than are uncommitted middle Americans. Rigged districts and holding primaries also favor extremists, and can foster polarization.
Here is the key point missed by Richard: These factors have their determinative effects in the politics that take place long before the top two elections occurs.
Every sausage maker knows that a good sausage is not determined by the gut that holds the sausage together, but by the ingredients poured into the gut. But Richard is the only cook around who ignores the ingredients, and blames the foul taste of bad sausage on the gut, which everyone else regards as neutral in taste.
All the events that occur before the final top two vote are what account for the persistence of immoderate politicians, polarized legislatures, the failures of third parties, and the repeated re-election of incumbents. This is the case for Louisiana, California, Washington, Wisconsin, and every other state with these dysfunctional patterns.
Richard recognizes the dysfunctionality, but blames the victim – the final top two vote – rather than dealing with the intransigent causes. These causes are the natural consequences of a political system dominated by our a-constitutional two-party system. Putting the gut on the sausage is the last step. If the sausage is bad, it is all the steps taken prior to the last step that are to blame. The last step is neutral.
William J. Kelleher, Ph.D.
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