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Top-two primary boosts chances for instant run-off voting

Washington’s nominating process for partisan political office has a long, tortuous history — and it just got a little longer. Last week’s Supreme Court decision upholding Initiative 872, which established a “top-two” or “Louisiana-style” primary to replace the blanket primary declared unconstitutional in 2003, gives the Evergreen state its third distinct system in the space of five years.

David Brewster points out that one benefit of this method, in which the top two vote-getters advance to the general election — regardless of party affiliation — may be less-secure seats for incumbents, and a move toward the political center. But challengers and their fans aren’t the only ones celebrating. There’s now some buzz in the instant-runoff voting (IRV) community about this being an opportunity to extend their success beyond Pierce County, which will be holding the first IRV race in the state this November.

In IRV, voters rank candidates in order of preference and no separate primary is required. Proponents say that this ensures winners have the support of a majority, not merely a plurality, and that it would eliminate the phenomena of spoilers, wasted votes, and having to choose the “lesser of two evils.” Rob Richie, executive director of FairVote, thinks there is a “powerful case” to be made that IRV “in one high-turnout November election is better than…a relatively low-turnout summer election followed by a higher-turnout choice among two candidates who might not even be particularly representative of the views of the district/state’s voters.”

It remains to be seen, however, whether Washington voters are ready to ditch primaries altogether. Given that the beloved blanket primary isn’t coming back, will “top two” satisfy their desire to zigzag across the aisle? Or could the Democrats, Republicans, and Libertarians — who banded together to sink the blanket primary and unsuccessfully challenge the new system — decide that at least under IRV their candidates are certain to appear on the November ballot? After all, “top two” will likely result in Republicans being absent from the fall ballot in Seattle, Democrats likewise in Wenatchee, and Libertarians, Greens, and the rest of them nowhere at all.

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