The good and the bad of the top-two primary system

Saturday, October 1, 2016

November ballot shows the good and the bad of the top-two primary

By Evan Smith

A look at the November ballot shows some of the good and the bad of the top-two primary system.

When voters adopted the system more than a decade ago, some people said that voters wouldn’t want to look at a November ballot where the only choice was between two Democrats or between two Republicans. We will have a couple of those choices this year. In some cases that looks like a good thing; in other cases like a bad thing.

In most cases this year, we will have a choice between two candidates from two different political parties, likely the same choice we would have had under any sort of partisan primary.

But in some cases the choice will be between two people identifying with the same party.

In congressional or legislative districts that lean heavily toward one party or the other, the choice between two Democrats or two Republicans gives us a more competitive November election than we would have between a strong, candidate from one party and a token candidate from the other party.

One example is the 7th Congressional District, which includes Shoreline, Lake Forest Park, Edmonds and Woodway, along with most of Seattle and Seattle’s southwest suburbs.

The district will have a November election between two Democrats, Pramila Jayapal and Brady Pinero Walkinshaw, running for the position that longtime Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott is giving up.

This year’s general election will give voters a chance to decide between the top two Democrats in a district that gave more than 85 percent of its primary votes to Democrats, less than 13 percent to Republicans and about 2 percent to independents. That certainly will be better than a 7th District election would have been between a Democrat who took 42 percent of the primary vote and a Republican who took 8 percent in the primary.

It also will put the decision between those two strong Democrats into the high-turnout general election rather than the low-turnout August primary.

Voters in heavily Republican central Washington will choose between a traditional Republican and a tea-party Republican after 4th Congressional District voters gave 75 percent of their primary votes to Republican candidates. That probably will be a more interesting contest than one would have been between one of the Republicans and a token Democratic candidate.

The top-two system doesn't work so well statewide.

For example, the top-two primary left Washington an illogical choice to replace retiring Democratic State Treasurer Jim McIntire. Two Republicans will meet on the November ballot even though Republicans took only 48.4 percent of primary votes, which were divided between the two candidates, while three Democrats divided the other 51.6 percent.

The primary for treasurer left Democratic State Sen. Marko Liias on the outside because his 20.4 percent placed him behind the two leading Republicans.

Some people would say that a candidate who gets only 20.4 percent of the primary vote doesn't deserve to be in the general election. That might be true if the voter turnout in the primary was higher than the 35.9 percent that Washington had this year.

This year’s primary narrowed the field for a November electorate that will be far different from one that put Liias in third place on the August ballot. That November electorate will be larger, generally younger, and more apt to vote for Democrats.

So, should we change the date of the primary? Yes. And should we make changes to the top-two primary? Yes.

One change might be to move more than two candidates to the general-election ballot when the total votes for the top two candidates is less than 50 percent. That might mean a runoff election in early February, something that might present us with new problems.

Another concern about the top-two primary is the status of third parties. Some may have been hurt, but the Libertarians have learned to operate as an opposition party in districts dominated by one of the major parties.

That happened in enough places to qualify Libertarians for the general-election ballot in at least 10 legislative contests around Washington along with the race for state attorney general.

Evan Smith can be reached at


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