Question Day: Is California's Primary System Working?
Allan Donsig asks: "1) How is the California top-two primary system working out? Better or worse than you expected?"
Top-two is a terrible idea, and it's working out more or less the way I (and most party scholars) expected. We expected parties to try to find ways to function in a disruptive and dysfunctional system. The results figured to include a fair amount of chaos and randomness early on, followed by relatively successful party intervention, which may change the parties in not particularly predictable ways.
How well are parties managing it? Seth Masket passes along new data indicating that 93 percent of party-endorsed candidates advanced in primary Tuesday, slightly more than the 88 percent in the first top-two election two years ago.
Which brings us to the "not particularly predictable" idea. Over the last few decades, California has had strong political parties, but the formal parties haven't been strong. As Seth has shown in his research, California party networks are so important to the parties there that they became fairly formalized themselves in some cases. I don't know enough about California politics right now to know exactly what's happening with these top-two endorsements, but one possibility is that the formal party organizations will wind up being more central within the overall party. That could change the parties further. Are some groups better positioned if battles over formal party positions become important, and local party machines less important? Or will those local structures just dominate? I suspect that even California experts couldn't predict the outcome.
Meanwhile, chaos and randomness are still strong factors. Remember, it's quite possible under top-two for a minority party to wind up with both spots in the general election if the smaller party only has two candidates, while the majority party has several that split its votes. As David Adkins notes, that almost happened in the statewide controller election. It's hard to see how that's good for democracy.
On a theoretical level, I think parties should be able to choose their own candidates. Top-two clearly violates that principle, even if the parties are able to figure out how to manipulate the system to reduce the worst effects. It's just a bad idea.
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