More Evidence Against the Top Two Elections Scheme

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Fewer people are voting in primaries, and they’re becoming less and less representative of the general population—so why give them all of the political power?

The Associated Press looks today at plummeting Primary Election turnout numbers, and while reporter JJ Cooper doesn’t link the facts to Measure 90, the data is another argument against the flawed “top two” elections proposal.

In Oregon, we had one of the lowest Primary turnouts on record this past May. At 36%, it was the absolute lowest since we implemented vote by mail in 2000. But here’s the thing: Primary turnout was down almost everywhere.

The backers of Measure 90 claim that their proposal will somehow magically increase voter participation, but the evidence strongly shows the opposite to be true.

California Turnout Washington Turnout

In California and Washington, which have both implemented “top two” elections in recent years, Primary turnout has continued to fall. California just had the lowest turnout in state history at less than 25% this past June. Washington’s Primary in August was the lowest in recent history for an even-year election, at around 30%. The “top two” elections system simply has not led to increased turnout or participation.

(In fact, according to researchers at the Public Policy Institute of California, “top two” elections do have the side-effect of driving down participation in races where both the top two candidates are from the same political party. No meaningful choices on the ballot = less reason to vote.)

But it’s not just a matter of fewer people participating. It’s a matter of who is participating. The Center for the Study of the American Electorate recently put out a study showing that Primary Election turnout nationwide has plummeted to about 15%. That’s abysmally low, but it’s not equally low among all voters.

Primary turnout among Democrats has fallen like a rock, but it’s fallen a lot less dramatically among Republicans.

From the Washington Post:

What’s perhaps most notable, though, is the partisan difference. Republican primary turnout overtook Democratic turnout for the first time in 2010, and that difference is even bigger this primary season.

In fact, GOP primary turnout has been pretty steady over the past four decades, but Democratic turnout has dropped consistently — including by about 30 percent this year, from 8.7 percent to 6.1 percent. That’s the biggest decline on-record.

Primary Turnout Nationwide

We also know that older voters make up a disproportionately large percentage of the Primary electorate. Data from the Census and Secretary of State show that Oregonians age 18-39 make up 38% of the adult population, but cast only 13% of the votes in the 2012 primary. Conversely, Oregonians age 60 and over accounted for 27% of Oregon’s adult population, but made up 58% of the voters in the 2012 primary election. Primary voters are also less diverse than the general public.

Here’s what that means for Measure 90: We know the “top two” won’t increase turnout, but it will give much more political power to the smaller and smaller number of Primary voters, who are older, whiter, and more Republican. These voters will be making the “top two” decisions for everyone else—including the very large number of people who vote in General Elections but not Primaries.

And if General Election voters don’t like the “top two” choices that older, whiter, more Republican voters make for them? Too bad. There are literally no other options available. Not even write-in candidates. So they can vote for one of two people who don’t represent them… or not vote at all.

From the AP:

Did voters sit out because there weren’t many high-profile races, something that’s naturally fixed in a general election? Or are they turned off from politics and uninterested in engaging?

The answer, and the likelihood that the campaigns can motivate people who agree with them, has implications in any of the races that have the potential to be close this November.

Those include ballot measures to legalize pot and label genetically engineered food; top-of-the-ticket races for governor and U.S. Senate; and especially the much lower profile state legislative races that will determine control of the state Capitol.

Indeed, turnout in November is much higher than in the Primary. But under a “top two” system, voters in the fall may be shocked and surprised to discover that their only two choices are not really choices at all.

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