A Republican in Santa Monica: Is Top Two an Antidote to “Rational Ignorance”?

This article was originally published on Fox & Hounds Daily:

My good friend, Joe Mathews, has thrown a couple gauntlets at my feet (here and here) regarding my support of the Top Two. In one piece, he cites the results of Oregon’s Citizens’ Initiative Review (some form of which I’d like to see here), and in a second, he indicates that Neel Kashkari’s campaign for governor has been harmed by it. At the foundation of Joe’s arguments is the issue about which we are both most concerned: the Top Two’s (Open Primary) effects on civic participation.

Readers should take a look at the tremendous “work product” fashioned by a group of “regular” Oregonians invited into a policy discussion about a complex political reform, as it outlines the real trade-off’s involved. While not determinative of a measure’s outcome, the Review is incorporated into Oregon’s Voter Information Guide to provide voters with an “informed citizen’s view” of a particular ballot initiative.

The “citizens’ jury” viewed the measures adverse impacts on third parties, and the fact that certain “Home Rule” counties with different election systems would have difficulty integrating Top Two as being significant arguments. Joe is accurate in pointing that the Oregonians involved in the Review “voted” 14 to 5 against it, but the genius of the American Republic is its flexibility: what works in Oregon might not work in California and vice versa.

And as I looked back over the Voter Information Guide California voters received back in 2010 (when Prop 14/Top Two was on the ballot), I see many of the same arguments made both for and against, but California’s voters decided in favor of the measure by about 400,000 votes. (I should add that the side-by-side argument layout used by Oregon is a design concept we should bring to our Voter Guide.)

But I want to address a couple of Joe’s points directly. First, I’m not sure how an argument can be made that the Open Primary adversely affected Neel’s run for governor. Is Joe suggesting that Neel would have received more publicity had he been running in a party primary? Or that he would have won by a larger margin in a party primary?

To the first question, the primary race was one of the most contentious in recent years on the Republican side, with Neel making up significant ground to earn his spot in the general election. Along the way, the press did a solid job of bringing attention to a race that in many ways outlined the significant size of the California GOP’s “tent”. Neel has continued to build on that coverage now that he is the party’s representative in November, doing extremely well in a debate, and putting forth an identity of the party as one that truly cares about the poor and middle class.

To the second question about the margin of victory, it is arguable that the No Party Preference (NPP) voters now able to participate in the Open Primary (where they were not allowed to participate in a standard party primary) helped get Neel’s more moderate Republican campaign past Tim Donnelly’s.

On the question about Top Two’s impact on civic engagement, I have to become more personal: speaking as a Republican in Santa Monica. It’s not easy being a Republican here, but it’s fun. Getting one’s “McCain for President” lawn signs set on fire…twice (as happened to a friend of mine) gives you a sense of the mood here in this city that prizes its (ahem) “diversity”.

But it is here, where the Top Two is (or, at least, should be) promoting civic participation. Back to that Oregon CIR, where in one of its conclusions about the reform found, “those Democrats and Republicans who live in districts dominated by the other party. Their party’s candidates for key offices have no real chance in the General election.”

In the 2012 Assembly race here (50th AD), the primary – though with a close race for second with Republican, Brad Torgan – produced two Democrats: Richard Bloom and Betsy Butler. In the hard-fought general election campaign that followed, Bloom was able to garner Republican endorsements, and framed himself – as I believe he is – as a pro-business Democrat.

As our recently released research has noted, one of the major reasons Californians have said they didn’t vote in the 2010 cycle was “wondering if their vote would matter.” Our political scientists out there know the term for this is “rational ignorance” – the rational belief that because one vote out of millions won’t make much of a difference, ignoring the whole voting process makes, at least some, sense.

But in the 2012 Assembly race between two Democrats, I knew not only did one of the candidates have to appeal to me to win, but that my vote would actually (finally!) have an impact on a general election result. And the final results – a razor thin win for Bloom – proved that case.

Once again, in this 2014 cycle my ballot for the local state senate race will have two Democrats on it, and once again, one of the candidates (Ben Allen) is trying to gain Republican support and endorsements, framing himself as the more fiscally conservative between two candidates. In full disclosure, I know and like Ben personally, but even if I didn’t, I will know that come November my vote in this race will very much have an impact on the final result – combating “rational ignorance”.

At the same time, in both of the races I’ve cited here, more liberal Democrats – who may have sat out a general election in their “safe district” – will also know that if they want to determine the winner, they, too, will have to “get out the vote” in order to defeat a more centrist opponent.

Now I understand that there aren’t many places like Santa Monica, but if Bill Bishop and his best-selling book The Big Sort are to be believed, Americans are increasingly moving to places where they share similar political leanings as their neighbors (a dynamic true for Republicans and Democrats). Non-partisan redistricting and the Top Two appear to be two reforms that can help to address the civic participation challenges of a geographically polarized electorate.

I agree with Joe, that we’ve seen a decrease in voting participation with the Top Two, but this decline should be put in the context of a disturbing national trend – one that is occurring in states with party primaries too – and here we are only in our second statewide cycle with the process in place.

I also agree with Joe that a major downside of the Top Two is the significant negative impact it weighs on third/fourth parties. But I believe there are ways to at least ameliorate these issues through a more robust write-in program for the general election, and, in any event, the positive trade-offs of the Top Two outweigh the negatives…especially in the growing number of “Santa Monica’s” (and its Republican equivalent).

Pete Peterson is a candidate (R) for California Secretary of State, and Executive Director of the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement at Pepperdine’s School of Public Policy