Tuesday, March 29, 2011


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.

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.

Political legitimacy
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.


richardwinger said...

Prop. 14 does not treat all candidates equally in the first round. Some of them can have their party label or they can choose to say they have no party preference. But candidates who are independents cannot say they are independent. Candidates who are members of an unqualified party must say they have no party preference.

wjk said...

That is correct, Richard, and thanks for contributing that important point. Of course, that point doesn't correct anything I said. I wrote, "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.” I.e., party elites can no longer pressure members to either run or not run. W/o the special privileges they used to have, equal opportunity to get on the ballot prevails. Once on, those inequalities you mention come into play. This is a flaw in CA law. Every person on the ballot should be able to state his/her party ID freely -- this is a 1st Amd issue! I hope the lawyers go after CA about this.

Randy Miller said...

Google ate my first comment which stinks.

Agreed that the point of top 2 is to be favoritism neutral. If I am understanding the position of third parties correctly, it is that they don't distinguish between the 2 party domination of the election process and the prevalence of elected figures who are Republican or Democrat. And by extension, any system which does not help install non big 2 candidates does not address the duopoly problem. I don't agree, but hey it's a free country. I prefer the favoritism neutral option which gets the GOP and DNC out of the CONDUCT of elections, but perhaps not the OUTCOME.

On the 1st amendment concerns. It is pretty easy during a campaign for candidates to identify to the public what party brand they are associated with. So easy in fact that their opponents will help do it for them. We have non-partisan municipal elections here in Utah. In 2009 the candidate for mayor who expressed that the Republican party was his party of preference raised the issue repeatedly that his one remaining opponent was one of those Democrat miscreants. In the end it backfired and he was defeated by the voters.

Couldn't party brand preference appearing on the ballot be construed as campaign materials at the place of elections or electioneering?

I was driving through Kemmerer Wyoming last fall with some amusement at reading the large partisan campaign signs as we passed: so and so Republican for County Coroner. The 2 party or any party dogma is so engrained that it just strikes me as downright silly that the performance in a position such as county coroner could have anything to do whatsoever with the officer's partisan affiliation. The same could be truly said for legislative positions. We are not living in the telegraph age anymore. Representatives can hear from us in real time, but there is a culture that acts as if we are going to put them on a steam train off to the state capitol or Washington and trust they will represent us with no contact from us except the occasional telegraph. And they would prefer to be contacted about as often in some cases to be sure. What is so difficult about seeking and reflecting the consensus of one's constituency. I just don't get the relevance of parties in the 21st century.

richardwinger said...

It violates equal protection for Prop. 14 to give some candidates a party label and deny it to others. Prop. 14 has other undemocratic features also: (1) it says write-ins can't be counted in November, even though the ballot will have write-in space and won't warn voters that their write-in won't be counted; (2) it makes it harder for candidates to get on the primary ballot; (3) it makes it more difficult for minor parties to remain ballot-qualified and thus threatens to even throw them off the ballot for President. Also, ironically, it puts into the California Constitution that the qualified parties are entitled to elect party officers; before Prop. 14 there was no mention of county central elections in the California Constitution and the legislature would have been free to eliminate such subsidies to parties.

Randy Miller said...

(1) won't the election clerks post a notice to that effect? Won't it be widely known prior to election day?
(2)independents couldn't get on the primary ballot at all before, so how can it be more difficult?
(3)Didn't the 2 parties invent thresholds and the concept of ballot qualified parties anyway? I'm not a fan of that nonsense.
(4) You don't like top 2 (though the majority of California voters do). You don't like CUIP. You don't like the GOP and you don't like the DNC. I'm with you on the last 2, but what DO you like? How do you propose to eliminate the undue influence of the major parties on the performance of elections?

Nancy Hanks said...

I totally agree with Randy Miller:

I'm with you on the last 2, but what DO you like? How do you propose to eliminate the undue influence of the major parties on the performance of elections?

So what DO you propose??

Thanks Randy!