A piece in the New York Times the other day reported on a brand-new electoral system, adopted just this year in California. It's called the "top-two" primary. Never mind that you thought it came from Washington. The Times attributes it to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
This comes up in roundabout fashion, in a story by Matt Bai on Nov. 10, about the weirdness of the Alaska senatorial election. That one's plenty weird all right, and Bai predicts that — barring a change in primary election rules — more and more states will see the kind of fight that absorbs Alaskans at this moment. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, ambushed in the Republican primary by the Tea wing of her own party, has won a write-in campaign, a thing of wonder that happened only once before in American history (segregationist Strom Thurmond did it to the Democrats after South Carolina's Senate primary in 1954).
"It is a dynamic (independent-minded voters challenging the hierarchy of their own parties) that this year prompted a major change in California," Bai reports, "the state where most innovations, fast food computer chips, etc. — spring to life before sweeping eastward. In an initiative (now get this) championed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and opposed by both parties, voters approved an open primary system in which candidates of all qualifying parties will be put on the same primary ballot. Then the top two vote getters will enter a runoff in November, regardless of party."
Washington adopted the top-two system in 2004, through an initiative led by the Washington Grange. It survived a long series of court challenges and was used in the 2008 election. The one just past was the third time for the top-two system, and it seems to be working smoothly. Democratic and Republican hierarchies are still fighting it in federal court, because it weakens party influence.
Washington, you'll recall, used to run a very popular blanket primary — an open contest in which a voter could choose a candidate from either party. That worked fine for 70 years, until California swiped it. Then California's party leaders sued to overturn it, and won at the U.S. Supreme Court. That brought about the 2004 Washington Grange initiative that gave us top-two.
As critics predicted, it can produce an outcome where the surviving choices are both from the same party. That happened in 10 legislative races this year, in the heavily Democratic Seattle-Tacoma region and the heavily Republican Spokane area.
The NYT story suggests that top-two might well be the national norm in 10 or 12 years, as a more independent-minded generation of voters ascends into the age group that does most of the voting. They seem to carry far less party loyalty than their antecedents. The states will need to reform their primary election systems or brace for "more primary uprisings among sharply ideological voters followed by more write-in rebellions like Lisa Murkowski's."
Matt Bai probably has that part right. But with all due respect to the New York Times, someone should have told him that Washington adopted the top-two primary six years before Arnold got around to inventing it.