There are three things Oregonians need to know about Measure 90, the Top Two election proposal on the November ballot. First, Top Two will severely restrict voters’ rights to vote in all November elections. Second, Top Two is undemocratic. Third, there is absolutely no evidence that Top Two will improve our elections.
The right to vote is the most precious right in our country; it is the right on which all other rights depend. Freedom of choice in the election process is what differentiates a democracy from, say, a dictatorship. Although the big business backers of Top Two focus on the effects their proposal will have on primary elections, the November election is where it will truly wreak havoc with the democratic process.
In the November election, under Top Two, there will be only two candidates on the ballot in each race—and both candidates could be from the same party. This has been the experience in Washington and California using Top Two: elections where the “choice” is between two Republicans or two Democrats.
Limiting choices to just two in our most critical election is offensive to democratic ideals. Most civilized nations offer their citizens a veritable menu of choices on Election Day. Yet Top Two limits us to only two choices; one “choice” away from those afforded to you in China or Cuba.
Elections are about ideas and not simply about winning or losing. With Top Two, the debate that would ensue after the May primary would be extremely narrow. What if we could only get our news from ABC or CBS? What if there were no newspapers or internet, no CNN or NPR or Fox or MSNBC? Would we accept those “choices”? What if your “choice” for news was between ABC and ABC? These are the kinds of “choices” which Top Two will produce.
In some districts, Republicans will be shut out of the November election; in others, it will be Democrats who are left out. In every statewide race, there will be no independent or third party candidates on the ballot. This will limit the debate not only for today but far into the future. Traditionally, the role of third parties is to introduce ideas to the electorate long before they are commonly accepted. Once seemingly “radical” ideas—from marriage equality and the abolition of slavery to ending cannabis prohibition and recognizing the right of women to vote—were all first championed by third parties.
The slight-of-hand proponents of Measure 90 claim that it will increase voter turnout and produce legislatures which are moderate. There is absolutely no evidence to back either claim. In fact, using Top Two, California just suffered the lowest voter turnout primary in its history. And, according to a recently released study, California has the most polarized legislature in the United States. When it comes to increasing voter turnout and producing “moderates,” the California experience demonstrates that Top Two is a complete failure.
Changing our elections is a great idea. Our country is becoming increasingly diverse—as is Oregon to a much more modest extent. Fewer people are also participating with the two major political parties. We do need new election systems that will reflect this diversity of opinion and population. There are many successful models used across the country and around the world which accomplish these noble goals. Unfortunately, Top Two doesn’t aim for diversity or more choices. It restricts choice and limits debate and participation. Oregonians were right to resoundingly reject this ill-advised proposal by a 2-1 margin in 2008 and would be wise to do so again.
This essay appeared in The Oregonian and on-line at www.oregonlive.com.