Shocked, Shocked to Find Top Two Being Gamed

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)

It’s not a scandal when California’s top two system gets gamed. It’s a system that was designed to be gamed.

Since its passage by voters a decade ago, defenders of the top two—I don’t call it a primary because it’s the absence of the primary—have described it as a way to give independent and moderate candidates a chance. 

It doesn’t usually work that way—top two actually helps the most extreme candidates, according to research and recent history. But we shouldn’t get upset when it does.

That’s the missing context in an excellent Calmatters story on some manipulation in a Stockton area state senate race. Supporters of a moderate Democrat in the race seem to be behind a couple of unexpected Republican candidates. Adding in the Republican candidates is a ploy to keep a third viable Republican candidate from finishing in the top two, allowing the two Democrats, including the moderate, to advance to the November run-off election.

The story treats this as manipulation or shenanigans. But it’s really top two working as intended.

When I debated top two supporters earlier in the previous decade and pointed out that it didn’t advantage moderates (or do much else of use), they argued that political strategists just needed time to figure out how to “use” it.

Perhaps they have. So don’t blame the players in top two. Blame the game.

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