Washington's top-two primary may be spreading

California voters are considering an initiative similar to the primary election format used in Washington.


A few years back the Republican and Democratic parties took aim at Washington state's open primary system because they hated the way voters could easily cross party lines. The parties wanted hard-line Democrats and Republicans -- the true believers who tended to be liberal if they were Democrats and conservative if they were Republicans -- to pick the parties' nominees for the general election.

The parties filed suit to take control of the primary election and ultimately prevailed.

But the state's independent-minded voters used the initiative process to take back control. The top-two primary system was eventually adopted. In this system the top-two vote getters in a race, regardless of their political affiliation, face off in the general election.

The parties hate it -- maybe even worse than the open primary -- but voters have embraced it.

And the success in Washington has caught the interest of Californians who are unhappy with the political parties and their elected leaders.

Next week California voters will decide the fate of a ballot measure adopting the top-two primary system.

Supporters of the initiative include California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado, both Republicans, The New York Times reported last week. The Times said the pair has been promoting Proposition 14 as a kind of electoral panacea, saying it could encourage political moderates and increase turnout in primaries where hard-line candidates often win.

And in a state saddled with a $19 billion deficit, high unemployment and low morale, the promise of new blood in Sacramento seems to be a potent one, wrote The Times.

"I think people are disappointed in their government," Maldonado said. "And that's why they are supporting this."

If California adopts this measure, it isn't likely to turn its state government upside down, but it should open the door for more moderates in both parties to get elected to office.

Take, for example, Walla Walla County and Eastern Washington. It's no secret the region is politically right of center and tends to favor Republicans for state and local offices. Not long ago conservative Democrats provided real competition for Republicans and a choice for voters.

Conservative Democrats (and liberal Republicans) are an endangered species.

As the political parties have leaned further to the right and left respectively, fewer conservative Democrats have run for office in Eastern Washington. As a result, the GOP has been dominant.

But to win a primary today candidates have to appeal to all voters -- liberals, conservatives and moderates. This gives those with moderate political views more than a chance, it gives them an edge. The top-two system should move more elections closer to the political center.

It will be interesting to see if California follows Washington's lead in trying to give moderates a better opportunity to get elected.


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