As more and more voters reject the fossilized two-party system, the political establishment is digging in its heels and doing whatever it takes to limit voter choices in statewide general elections. One of the most undemocratic ways to limit diverse ideas and opinions is to manipulate the way that candidates can get on the general election ballot. One way to limit choice is through primary election rules.
With a lot of attention being paid to primary elections and more states trying to limit the general election choices, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer’s emergence as the head cheerleader for top-two primaries is a giant red flag. Ultra-partisan Schumer, nicknamed “Wall Street Chuck” is a relentless fundraiser. Schumer, a Democrat from New York, got the nickname from being Wall Street’s main man in the Senate, their protector. In exchange, Schumer raises a lot of campaign money from Wall Street. It is dangerous to believe that Schumer has any interest in reducing partisanship.
While Schumer claims to favor open primaries, he is actually advocating the worst electoral reform in recent history, the top-two primary. In the widely distributed New York Times opinion piece on July 21, 2014, and distributed in many other newspapers across the country, Schumer claims that, “We need a national movement to adopt the ‘top-two’ primary (also known as an open primary), in which all voters, regardless of party registration, can vote and the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, then enter a runoff.” Note to Schumer, it’s not a runoff, it is the general election that’s at stake, the time when the most diverse choices appear on state ballots — except in top-two primary states.
The nation’s leading expert on ballot access law, Richard Winger, describes how top-two reduces voter choice and bars new ideas from the electoral arena. “It terribly hurts minor parties. There have now been 116 instances when a minor party member ran for federal or state office in a top-two system, in which there were at least two major party members running. In all 116 instances, the minor party person did not place first or second and thus couldn’t campaign in the June-November general election campaign season.”
A coalition of California voters from across the political spectrum, members of the Libertarian, Peace and Freedom, and Green parties, has filed a lawsuit to demonstrate how the top-two system injures voting rights. The suit strongly makes the case that the court must “protect the longstanding rights of California voters to access diverse political views at the moment of peak political participation: the statewide general election.”
Top-two distorts democracy in the worst way possible while rewarding hyperpartisanship and political gerrymandering of districts. In districts dominated by a single party, a number of top-two primaries resulted in both general election candidates being members of the same political party. This unfair system is designed to eliminate electoral choice.
It is a fact that many more people vote in statewide general elections than vote in primary elections. Top-two severely restricts the majority of the voters to only one or two choices.
Wall Street Chuck is a quack offering false remedies to “save America.” The people want more choices, not fewer choices. There are many progressive voting reforms that have been demonstrated to greatly increase voter participation, reduce negative campaigning and bring people together closer to the middle. Several have been discussed and some enacted in New Mexico; ranked choice voting (instant runoff), public financing and funding limits. There are also lessons to be learned from countries with proportional representation; if there is not a solid majority, a coalition government must be formed.
It is time for the United States to end winner-take-all elections and the resulting partisan bitterness. It is time try coalition government.
Carol Miller is a community organizer from Ojo Sarco, New Mexico (population 300) and an advocate for “geographic democracy,” the belief that the United States must guarantee equal rights and opportunities to participate in the national life, no matter where someone lives.