Oregon Citizens Sniff Out the Top Two Primary

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

Could the Citizens Initiative Review saved California from the horrors of the top two primary?

Hard to know, but the thought occurred as I read what Oregon’s CIR process – during which a representative jury of regular voters spends a week talking with people about a ballot initiative and then makes it finding – produced on Measure 90, an Oregon initiative to establish a Top Two primary in the state.

The jury members, after making findings on what an initiative will do, also declare whether they are for or against it, and then draft arguments for and against it. It’s a good process, bringing actual humans into the deliberative process. In the case of Measure 90, the vote was 14 against the top two, and just 5 for it.

Those who opposed it listed their arguments, under the CIR. Among them: Measure 90 “limits the voice of minority voters, minor parties, and grassroots campaigns.”

Those citizens who opposed the idea also made a point often made here: that top two only has a chance of working if the first-round (so-called primary) is relabeled correctly as a general election. General elections attract more voters, but under top two voter choice is actually restricted in a general election. As the CIR put it, “A diverse electorate needs choice & diversity in the General Election… Turnout in Primary Elections is much lower than General Elections. M90 decreases choice in the General Election for all voters.” The impact, according to the CIR findings? “Nationwide, Primary turnout has fallen to less than 15%, including Top Two states.”

The group did look at the top two experience both in California and Washington – and it was clear that the Oregonians were eager to avoid repeating California’s experience with top two, which has produced perverse outcomes and a weakening of political parties, and has coincided with record low turnouts.

The citizens who supported Measure 90 were at paints to distinguish the Oregon initiative from its California counterparts, emphasizing that Oregon candidates will be able to list their party affiliation and endorsements. In their argument for Measure 90, the CIR found: “M90 differs from the Top Two systems of California and Washington, because it allows voters to see candidates’ personal party registration and all party endorsements that s/he accepts. This information helps voters understand candidates’ views and allies.”

California could have adopted Citizens Initiative Review for this election year, but our reform community didn’t embrace it – or any other major reform – in the minor legislation, SB 1253, that just passed the legislature. (Jon Coupal of Howard Jarvis Taxpayers noted another significant omission – on title and summary power – in a recent post here). Why not? The League of Voters foolishly, and incorrectly, saw CIR as a competitor. And of course, our good government groups like to maintain their perfect record of never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

Reading the records of the Oregon process, it’s clear that the Oregon measure is getting more detailed scrutiny and deliberation than the top two primary measure did in California in 2010. That’s too bad. California might have been better off if the top two’s flaws had been more apparent sooner.

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