Livingston: Top Two Primaries are a time-test failure

On Nov. 8, 2016, voters rightly rejected Amendment V, which would have implemented nonpartisan blanket primaries. On Nov. 5, 2023, an almost duplicate ballot measure (now with optional party labels) will be put up to South Dakota voters.

South Dakota currently has a “semi-closed” primary system. This involves requiring the party-affiliated candidates to participate in a primary election in order to appear on the November ballot. These elections are naturally closed to non-members of the relevant party, except if said party opens its primary to voters not affiliated with the party.
This proposed amendment would introduce something called “Top-Two” Primaries. This involves one primary election where all of the candidates run against each other in their respective races. The candidate has the option to list any party next to their name on the ballot regardless of their party affiliation or registration. All voters may vote for any candidate. The top two candidates move on to the general election in November. If there is more than one candidate to be elected to an office, (like our two state representatives for one district), the number of people advancing to the general election is doubled. Variations of Top-Two or “blanket” primaries are used in Washington State, Nebraska, California, and Alaska.
The Top-Two primary system promises many things. While the issues that Top-Two primaries seek to address are credible, when this specific system is put into practice, its many flaws begin to show.
Firstly, Top-Two primaries promise more voter “choice” and do not restrict the voter by their party registration. However, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Sometimes the historically stronger party in a district can have so many primary competitors, that it splits the vote, and gives the first- and second-place slot to the weaker party. So when November rolls around, the other side of the political spectrum is shut out for choice. This system shuts out third-party and independent candidates even more. A 2018 article from The San Diego Union-Tribune states in the case of California, “Ever since the top two system has existed, there is no instance in which a minor party member placed first or second in a primary, if there was at least one Republican and one Democrat running in the same primary. This November, California will be one of only four states in which voters can’t vote for a third party for a statewide office (the others are Washington, Alabama and Maine).”

Moreover, Top-Two primaries promise more moderate politicians. When all of the candidates are on the same ballot and are forced to compete for votes across the political spectrum, it incentivizes candidates to moderate to appeal to more of the electorate. In practice, this has barely happened. Like many reforms, parties, interest groups, and private and wealthy donors will simply find loopholes and sway the system in their favor. They will use every method, be it political or monetary, to ease the intended effects of Top-Two Primaries. In theory, when all of
the candidates are running under the same party label, voters are forced to judge the candidates more independently and therefore choose better candidates. However, most voters simply do not have the time to assess candidates on the issues. They must rely on, what New America, a D.C.-based think tank says, “shortcuts,
such as endorsements, in-group affiliation, or most commonly, simply name recognition.”

Without party labels to guide voters, it puts more power in the hands of the big-money players and the
information that they put out. New America says that in California, “…top-two primaries generated an increase in about $18 million in contributions (compared to states that did not reform).”
Lastly, proponents of this amendment will point out the growing share of self-identified independents paired with falling membership in the two major parties. Conventional belief states that the growing share of self-identified independents translates into a major shift towards moderation in the electorate. There is certainly a sizeable amount of the electorate who fit this belief. Despite that, when you scale this to the general population, the numbers tell a different story. FiveThirtyEight, an ABC News-owned website focused on opinion poll analysis, states that “roughly 3 in 4 independents still lean toward one of the two major political parties, and studies show that these voters aren’t all that different from the voters in the party they lean toward. Independents who lean toward a party also tend to back that party at almost the same rate as openly partisan voters.” Picking an “independent” label can be among many reasons, however, it is most commonly a factor of political dissatisfaction and self-exclusion from the hostile political environment. Studies have even shown that independents can actually be more extreme than their partisan affiliated counterparts. According to New America, independents are, “often more extreme and less compromise oriented than registered partisans, and largely distinguished by their frustration with and anger toward the political system.”
Therefore this makes independents “... most receptive to the most anti-system populist candidates.” This makes the expected scale of crossover voting much less prevalent and as a result, makes the intended benefits of Top-Two primaries less prevalent.

Top-Two primaries and general alteration in our primary system are a time-test failure. Again, while the issues that election reforms such as this seek to address are credible, this specific reform is not the way to solve them. Let us look at the reasoning behind a politician’s character and messaging, especially when competition is present. Let us look at Gerrymandering from both parties, which is one of the biggest burdens on the health of our democracy. We rejected this back in 2016, I encourage you to do the same in 2023.

Ben Livingston



The Brandon Valley Journal


The Brandon Valley Journal
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Brandon, SD 57005
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