Critics of the idea – usually not people from polarized political areas – like to argue that the Top-Two system does not necessarily render great candidates. As if the current system does.
They are wrong to hastily criticize and they are wrong to say that it does not work, since it has only been tried on a grand scale in California and it’s too early to really jump to conclusions on that front.
What is the Top-Two primary? The Republicans and Democrats both hold closed primaries in New York. You need to be a member of one of those parties to vote in the primary. You know the primary election – it’s the election for which you probably do not participate.
You know who does? Usually they are passionate, but non-centrist voters. When the general election rolls around, we are stuck with whoever those people have given us.
To put this into perspective, let’s look at New York City. In the Democratic mayoral primary in 2013, there were about four Democrats who, at one time or another, had a shot at being elected mayor. Bill de Blasio, Anthony Weiner, Christine Quinn and Bill Thompson were all possibilities.
Republican Joe Lhota may have been a greatly qualified candidate, but he did not resonate with his own party or citywide. In a Top-Two system, all of these candidates – including Lhota – would run in a giant primary. The top two finishers would run against each other.
This means we would most likely see fewer Republicans making it to the general election, but there would also be more moderates. A Top-Two primary may have had Bill Thompson running against Bill de Blasio in the general election.
The point of the Top-Two Primary is to stimulate voter activity, and according to a study by Citizen’s Union (an organization that once opposed nonpartisan primaries), it does.
Changing the way we hold primaries will not cure all political problems. But the critics who argue that it will weaken parties are wrong. Parties are already weak.
There are upwards of 700,000 independent voters in New York City alone. That means that almost one million people cannot vote until the general election. One GOP staffer, in defense of the closed primary, once told me that since independents can register in parties, it is their problem if they do not like the choices on Election Day.
He was right about that, but the reality is that we have way too many voters sitting on the sidelines until the general election, where the candidates are not always the most representative of the electorate.
Without taking anything away from Mayor Bill de Blasio’s victory in November, the voter turnout in that election was not high at all. This was a major election in the largest city in the country. We cannot be okay with this.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg put this issue on the ballot in 2003 as a referendum, and it was defeated. But it was defeated in an off-year, when there were not many voters coming out because there were not many big races happening.
Good for Senator Schumer for taking what is an uncharacteristic stance for him. After all, Schumer is a party loyalist in what is basically a one-party town. If you’re Schumer, why futz with a good thing?
But he is right about the ramifications of a closed primary system. Francis Barry, the former director of Communications for Bloomberg wrote The Scandal of Reform, a book that historically tracks and explains how the closed primary system has kept good people out of politics. Read that book and then decide if you agree with Schumer.