California’s elections system is making news again (“Top-two primary system survives challenge,” by Thomas Elias, Salinas Californian, February 17). “Top two,” in California and elsewhere, is the latest effort to strengthen the Republican and Democratic parties’ monopoly — “duopoly” — over American politics.
Supporters’ justifications for “top two” laws are that too much choice on the November ballot “confuses” voters, and that permitting only two candidates avoids run-offs and plurality rather than majority winners. So while those pesky third party (Libertarian, Green, etc.) and independent candidates can run in the earlier primary elections if they jump through enough hoops, in November voters must choose between the “top two” primary vote-getters — almost always a Republican and a Democrat.
The single largest voter identification in the United States, exceeding any party’s, is “independent.” Polling consistently shows that pluralities or majorities of Americans support the idea of a “third major party” and would consider voting for non-duopoly candidates for political office.
Yet every other November, the vast majority of non-duopoly candidates go down to defeat. A few win local office. Even fewer become state legislators. Bona fide independent or third party governors, US Representatives and US Senators are rarities. And the next US president who isn’t a Republican or Democrat will be the first since those two parties coalesced into their current forms in the mid-19th century.
Why? Well, for one thing, those two major parties control access to election ballots. And they use that control to make it as difficult and expensive as possible for third party and independent candidates to even offer themselves as alternatives.
Prior to 1884, printed ballots were provided to voters by political parties and candidates. Those voters were also free to write out their own ballots by hand if they didn’t vote “straight party ticket.” Between 1884 and 1991, the states adopted the “Australian ballot” — a uniform ballot printed at government expense.
Standardized, one-size-fits all ballots, of course, have to come with rules. And guess who gets to make those rules? The two ruling parties, of course. Over time they have sewn up their “duopoly” with increasingly draconian restrictions.
In most states, Democratic and Republican nominees for office appear on the ballot automatically or nearly automatically. Third party and independent candidates might be allowed to run as well, if they spend lots of money collecting petition signatures — money which then becomes unavailable for their actual campaigns.
“Top two” proponents seek to tighten the screws even further and eliminate any chance whatsoever that a third party or independent candidate without, say, the personal wealth of a Ross Perot, might “spoil” the election of one of the establishment candidates, or even surge to victory.
They refer to their systematic diminution of voter choice, with straight faces, as “democracy.”
The rest of us refer to it as “rigging America’s elections.”
If voters want real political choice, it’s time to start voting for candidates who support free and fair elections … while the duopolists still allow us to.
Thomas L. Knapp is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.