Viewpoints: Top-two primary system is eliminating diverse political expression

By Michael Feinstein, Special to The Sacramento Bee. Tuesday, May. 6, 2014

Did you know that the top-two primary system for electing candidates is destroying smaller parties and eliminating diverse political expression in our state? How did it happen? Can anything be done about it?
On Feb. 19, 2009, between 4 and 7 a.m., the Legislature placed a major constitutional electoral reform – Proposition 14 – on the June 2010 primary ballot and approved its companion statute, Senate Bill 6.
The Voter Information Guide did not provide a summary or text of SB 6, which fleshes out critical details of Proposition 14, nor did Proposition 14’s official ballot title and summary refer to it. Many potential negative effects of top two were hidden from voters, and opportunities to vet and correct them before the measure was placed on the ballot were denied to the public.
Top two makes it virtually impossible for candidates from smaller parties to be on the general election ballot and extremely difficult to participate in the primary. The Legislature even eliminated general election write-in candidacies – a right Californians have enjoyed since statehood in 1850.
From 1992 to 2010, the Green, Libertarian, Peace and Freedom, and American Independent parties averaged 127 primary ballot candidates among them in each election cycle. In 2012, in top two’s first year, they were able to qualify only 17 for state legislative and congressional races, the fewest since 1966, when only the Democrats and Republicans were on the ballot. This dropped to 13 in 2014, with 10 others running for quadrennial statewide offices, down from 33 in 2010.
By greatly restricting the ability of smaller parties to be visible and communicate their message, top two minimizes the range of viewpoints expressed in our elections and limits voters’ choice. For the smaller, longtime ballot-qualified parties, top two threatens their very survival – something voters were not asked to approve as part of Proposition 14.
Without new legislation, California’s smaller parties may lose their ballot status as soon as January 2015. Fortunately, Assemblyman Richard Gordon, D-Menlo Park, has stepped forward with Assembly Bill 2351, a bill to keep parties from directly falling off the ballot because of top two.
Under the state Elections Code, parties can retain their ballot status by getting 2 percent in a statewide general election. Historically, the Greens, Libertarians and the Peace and Freedom Party have done this at almost every opportunity, despite there often being six to eight parties on the ballot. Top two has taken this away, because smaller parties will no longer appear on the statewide general election ballot.
The other way to maintain ballot status is to reach a given voter registration threshold, a task historically more difficult for these parties. AB 2351 would lower that threshold to keep the existing parties on the ballot, but not necessarily invite new ones.
If this is as far as the Legislature goes, the smaller parties will stay on the ballot, but mostly in name only, because of additional barriers to participation placed by (or exacerbated by) top two, that were also not vetted with voters.
Under top two, the number of signatures needed to be on the statewide primary ballot without paying an expensive filing fee went from 150 to 10,000 for smaller-party candidates – and that’s only to be on the ballot through the June primary, compared to November under the previous system. That’s why the number of candidates from these parties has dropped to a historic low.
At the same time, fees for a full candidate statement in the Voter Information Guide – for many voters, their primary way of learning about candidates – are now more than double the candidate filing fee, leading to a large reduction in the number of words many smaller-party candidates can afford.
If this disenfranchisement happened to a class of ethnic or racial voters, rightly there would be great uproar. But that’s not the case for voters for smaller political parties.
There was no overt mandate to destroy the smaller parties in Proposition 14. Since it was placed on the ballot in such a manner, today’s Legislature has a responsibility to address this issue, comprehensively, before parties that have been representative of a wide range of California voters  for decades disappear from our elections.
In the name of democracy, the legislative leadership needs to support amendments to AB 2351 to address these choice-killing aspects. Other needed amendments include a reinstatement of general election write-in voting and the establishment of a presidential general election vote test.
The reality is that the Legislature failed to exercise its due diligence in not considering the multiple and complex implications of such a radical change to our electoral system. The Legislature should now fine-tune top two to ensure representative diversity in our democracy.
How would the people vote?