Offering frequent news and analysis from the majestic Evergreen State and beyond, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

A dark day for grassroots democracy: Supreme Court reinstates "Top Two" primary

This morning, the United States Supreme Court overruled the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and reinstated Washington State's never used "Top Two" primary system, which takes away voter choices in the general election (when most Washingtonians vote) and infringes on the First Amendment rights of political parties.

NPI is deeply disappointed in the Court's decision - and the majority who signed off on it (Justices Souter, Ginsburg, Roberts, Alito, Stevens, Breyer, and Thomas). We believe the Court erred in interpreting the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, which guarantees freedom of assembly to all Americans, including those Americans who choose to belong to a political party.

I never thought I would write these words... but we are very grateful to Justice Antonin Scalia for his strongly worded dissent, which Justice Kennedy joined.

The Court, by its action today, has okayed the use of a pointless, stupid scheme that disenfranchises parties and drastically reduces voter choices in the general election. The entire purpose of a primary election is for voters who belong to a party to participate in the selection of their party's nominee (or standard bearer) to go on to the general election.

That's why it is called a primary election.

If a primary election is no longer going to be used for selecting nominees, it doesn't need to be held at all.

A two part general election - which is what we now have with "Top Two" - disenfranchises voters who ignore (either accidentally or purposefully) the first part.

Ironically, thanks to Sam Reed, Rob McKenna, and the Grange, we now have a system that will sometimes or even regularly force voters to choose between candidates of only one party in November. Yes, you read that right.

The "Top Two" system, as the name suggests, only advances the top two vote getting candidates to the general election.

It doesn't matter what party they are from.

So if two Democrats get the most votes, the general election will be a contest between two Democrats. Those Washingtonians who don't want to vote for a Democrat are completely out of luck. The reverse is true as well.

In Seattle, this means Republicans can't compete in the general election. And in most of Eastern Washington, it means Democrats can't compete, which is bad for our state. Democracy thrives on debate and an exchange of ideas.

As for minor parties, well... you can forget about them.

Greens and Libertarians, for instance, will be fortunate just to get on the November ballot every once in a blue moon. They will be effectively shut out of the debate in the general election. Contemplate for a moment what this means.

Remember Bruce Guthrie, the Libertarian who ran for Senate in 2006? People like Bruce will no longer be able to stand next to the Maria Cantwells and Mike McGavicks of Washington State and argue their case to the electorate. Their campaigns will have ended in the dead of summer. And the traditional media will ignore them because they have become irrelevant.

The implementation of the "Top Two" scheme is going to ensure more monotony and less diversity in the general election - which, again, is the occasion when most Washingtonians participate in the political process!

What so many of my fellow citizens don't seem to understand is that political parties are about the only vehicles we have for grassroots political participation. Running for office takes a tremendous commitment and resources. Parties have resources, so they offer a way for nobodies to become somebodies.

Parties allow people like Darcy Burner to take on an entrenched incumbent like Dave Reichert, who enjoys all the benefits of being part of the political establishment. It would be harder for Darcy Burner to compete if she could not look to the Democratic Party as a source for funds, volunteers, and ideas.

If the parties are weakened or they disappear, who gains power?

The traditional media (and newspaper editorial boards - shudder) for one. Special interests and wealthy individuals, for another. And well known politicians with a sizable personal following they can tap for resources.

Corporate media already has enough power and money already has too much influence in our political system. What our democracy needs is more grassroots politics, not less. When we pass laws and set up rules that curtail freedom of assembly, we are hurting ourselves and limiting our own choices as a people.

The state Grange and Sam Reed ought to be harshly condemned for their unceasing attacks on parties and grassroots politics. They are responsible for proposing this Top Two garbage and hoodwinking the people of Washingon into believing Initiative 872 was a restoration of the old blanket primary system (which was also unconstitutional). It is not. It is drastically different.

In his dissenting opinion, Justice Scalia correctly observes that "Top Two" was not created out of a desire for a better means of selecting candidates, but to ensure that parties would not have any control over the nominating process:
Because Washington has not demonstrated that this severe burden upon parties’ associational rights is narrowly tailored to serve a compelling interest — indeed, because it seems to me Washington’s only plausible interest is precisely to reduce the effectiveness of political parties — I would find the law unconstitutional.


The right to associate for the election of candidates is fundamental to the operation of our political system, and state action impairing that association bears a heavy burden of justification.

Washington’s electoral system permits individuals to appropriate the parties’ trademarks, so to speak, at the most crucial stage of election, thereby distorting the parties’ messages and impairing their endorsement of candidates.

The State’s justification for this (to convey a “modicum of relevant information”) is not only weak but undeserving of credence.

We have here a system which, like the one it replaced, does not merely refuse to assist, but positively impairs, the legitimate role of political parties.
We can hardly assign all the blame (or let the Grange take all the credit) for the situation we find ourselves in, however.

The state's political parties have repeatedly failed to stand up for themselves. Democrats and Republicans have had tremendous difficulty pausing to stop warring with each other long enough to stand united with Greens and Libertarians and defend our democracy from harmful plots to sabotage grassroots politics.

The Grange (which is itself a special interest), Sam Reed, and their allies have been fought in court but not in the court of public opinion.

And so, because there have been no serious efforts to educate the public, a great many voters mistakenly and sadly harbor nothing but contempt for parties, which are the very entities that ably provide them with a diverse field of candidates to choose from in an election.

Political parties should be embraced and strengthened, not despised. As Dr. Reed Davis said almost three years ago in a guest post here on the Official Blog:
[A] real party is not a national or even a state committee. Those are professional organizations whose primary function is fundraising; whatever else they may be, they are most certainly not volunteer organizations whose primary function is to mobilize voters on behalf of candidates.

When I speak of the importance of parties, then, the parties I have in mind are the grassroots organizations that exist for the sake of, well, real people, and not political professionals.
Parties exist to allow like-minded citizens to organize, win elections, and influence officeholders. Parties ensure that different viewpoints are presented and articulated. They are the lifeblood of democracy.

We know that parties are imperfect. Ideally the state office and the central committees should wield less power. The problem is, it's hard to gather together millions or thousands of people to make day to day decisions.

There's certainly room for improvement. But Washington's political parties don't deserve the hostility they've historically received. And our state does not deserve this inferior, worthless elections scheme.

Candidates who can't rack up a double digit percentage of votes should not be barred from the general election by the State of Washington.

Parties should not have their First Amendment rights denied.

And voters should not be punished by a system that is designed to arrest choices.

The Supreme Court has decided that "Top Two" is constitutional. We disagree with that decision. But the Supreme Court isn't forcing us to use "Top Two". The law that created this scheme was not enacted in a marble hall thousands of miles away. It was cooked up right here at home by the Grange and approved by voters.

We can be thankful that what has been passed into law may be repealed. That doesn't mean getting rid of "Top Two" will be easy. The Grange has been winning in the court of public opinion because we've been forfeiting the match.

We can rescue grassroots democracy and get our open primary back, but we have to get out on the field first.


Blogger Kelly Haughton said...

You are invited to observe the Pierce County Ranked Choice Voting implementation this November. All candidates go directly to the general election ballot. The parties are allowed to determine which candidates can use their name on the ballot. And ballot access for independents and minor parties is the same as for Democrats and Republicans.

Already one race has four announced candidates and another has three. It may well that these races will be the only ones in the state with more voter choice than two.

March 20, 2008 6:15 AM  
Blogger Steve Rankin said...

Another feature of this system is that it forces the top two finishers to conduct and finance TWO general election campaigns. This discourages candidates from running. Recently in Louisiana, two former governors have "tested the waters" and decided not to run. If Louisiana had had party primaries, they likely WOULD have run, and the voters would have had more choices.

The Washington "top two" is unconstitutional for congressional elections. The US Supreme Court has said that the November ballot cannot be limited to two candidates in congressional races. This portends yet another lawsuit.

March 23, 2008 12:59 AM  

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