It's a 'Jungle' Out There: The Top-Two Primary
by Anthony Stasi
Oct 09, 2014 | 5233 views | 0 0 comments | 53 53 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The Top-Two primary system that Senator Chuck Schumer has jumped on board with recently was adopted into law in California in 2010.

The “Jungle Primary,” as it is called, is where all candidates compete in an open primary and the top two finishers compete in the general election – regardless of party affiliation.

This November, we will see what this means in some competitive elections in California. If we want something similar in New York, we might want to take a peek at what is happening out west.

In California’s 17th Congressional District, Democratic incumbent Congressman Mike Honda has been routinely re-elected in a safe Democratic district. This year, however, he faces another Democrat in challenger Ro Khanna, a former member of the Obama administration.

Honda trounced Khanna in the primary, 48 to 28 percent, but there were two Republicans who accounted for 24 percent of the vote. If Khanna can tap into those Republican supporters, he can make this a real race in the House.

That is the point of the Jungle Primary; it now means that the approximately 20 percent of Republicans in that district now matter to some degree. Honda cannot ignore their concerns if he wants to be re-elected.

The race in California’s 17th is interesting, but it is only one race. In California’s 4th District, incumbent Republican Tom McClintock is now defending his seat against another GOP-er, Art Moore, who is a West Point graduate with ten years served in uniform.

Like Honda, McClintock cruised through the primary, beating Moore with 56 percent of the vote to Moore’s 23 percent. But now Moore can make the race a little closer with a one-on-one general election.

Jeffrey Gerlach also ran in the primary as an independent, getting almost the same amount of votes as Moore. Can Moore tap into the 21 percent that Gerlach received? That is on him to convince them that he is worthy.

In both of these cases, it is likely that Honda and McClintock will be re-elected. Their supporters are locked in. Their challengers now have to pick up almost all of the “leftover” votes in the primary in order to dethrone either incumbent.

But at least these are competitive races and all sides of the aisle matter now. Two years ago McClintock won re-election 61 to 39 percent against his Democratic opponent. He may have to work harder this time around.

That is what Schumer was talking about in his recent op-ed about bringing this system to New York. It is also what Mayor Michael Bloomberg wanted in 2003, when he put it on the ballot as a referendum item.

There are disadvantages to this system, as well. A party that fields the most candidates (say three or four) risks splitting its votes. This could mean that the opposition party, which may well be the minority party, can bundle all of its votes and take the top spot.

It is the job of party bosses, however, to steer clear of that problem. In fact, party leadership positions would be more important in a system like this.

It may be something we want to try at the local level, just to see if it works. Give the idea a time limit of eight years for City Council elections. Would this make more of New York City’s voters relevant? Maybe, and if it does not, it just goes away after eight years.

There could even be a sunset provision, where it automatically goes back to the current system unless the public votes to continue the nonpartisan system. This would mean the plan would have to prove itself useful.

Critics like to call California’s system the Jungle Primary as a way to poke fun at the less structured aspect of it, but politics may be better off as a jungle than a closed camp.

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