Top Two’s Next Victim? The 2018 Gubernatorial Contest

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)

Boy does California ever need a robust, wide-ranging debate about the future of the state, and the future of governance. And so you might think that the 2018 governor’s race, with the incumbent termed out, would be just the opportunity for such a debate.

But there’s no chance of such a debate. Top two will keep the conversation narrow.

California’s top two system (I don’t call it a primary, even though the state does, because top two eliminates primaries) has many faults. In 2018, we’ll experience how, in the names of expanding choices, it eliminates our choices.

All the candidates of all parties are on the ballot in the first round of balloting. That is supposed to encourage moderation and spur turnout and give voters more choices, but it does the opposite of those things.

Instead, it encourages political parties and donors to short-circuit races, to make sure their party doesn’t have too many contenders.

In top two, parties have to worry about not having too many candidates and too many choices. Because if your party has many candidates – and more than the other party – and those candidates split the voters, you can get shut out of the November runoff election.

Democrats face this problem. There are already at least 4 Democrats who have declare they are running. And there could be more. But don’t expect to see all those Democrats campaigning, much less on the ballot.

Because of fear. If 4 or 5 Democratic candidates split the votes, and only 2 Republicans run, you could see two Republicans advance to November, leaving the Democrats shut out of the gubernatorial runoff in a very Democratic state.

This top two math will thus rob the Democrats of a bigger, more engaging race, that covers more views. It also will limit Republicans, whose only hope lies in keeping the number of candidates to two. Both parties have different factions that deserve to be heard.

But California elections aren’t about being heard, at least not under top two. They are about insider strategy and manipulating math.

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