As of tonight, Washington has experienced its 5th cycle using the Top Two system. While most of the races featured familiar Democratic-Republican match-ups, three others stand out: a couple of intraparty congressional races (one with two Democrats, and the other with two Republicans) that are the hallmark exhibits of the opportunities Top Two affords; and a state executive race that showcases the potential for misfires. We consider their implications below.
The state adopted Top Two in 2008 for congressional, state executive, and state legislative elections. The new system replaced the use of partisan primaries followed by a general election among nominees of each party and independents. Under Top Two, all candidates compete against each other in a first preliminary election irrespective of their party preference. Voters have one vote, and the two candidates receiving the most votes advance to the general election.
The biggest benefit touted by supporters of Top Two is the increase in competition provided by allowing two members of the same party to compete in the general election in districts the lean strongly towards that party. In the former system, one candidate would emerge from the partisan primary, typically decided by a lower turnout and less representative electorate, and go on to win re-election easily. Under the new system, candidates are able to advance regardless of party label, which in turn is meant to compel candidates to earn support from a broader pool of voters in the general electorate than they would otherwise have to appeal to in order to succeed under the old partisan primaries.
Indeed, two congressional races this year seem to exemplify this scenario: the elections in Washington’s 4th and 7th districts. The former hosts a rematch between Republicans Dan Newhouse and Clint Didier; they faced off in 2014, in which the more conservative Didier lead in the preliminary, 31.8% to 25.6%, but Newhouse prevailed in the general election round, 50.8% to 49.2%, with the longer campaign and greater input from the higher turnout November electorate. In the latter match-up, Democrats Pramila Jayapal and Brady Pinero Walkinshaw advanced from the primary with 42.1% and 21.3% of the vote respectively, competing for an open seat left by Jim McDermott.
Each aforementioned district strongly favors the respective party, with the 4th having a Republican partisanship of 62.9%, and the 7th having a Democratic partisanship of 78.6%; a measure derived from the 2012 Presidential vote in each district, relative to the nation as a whole. Neither would have held a competitive contest had the races been between a Democrat and a Republican, as would have occurred under the previous system. Thus Top Two has enabled more input, and a more representative outcome, reflecting the will of the majority rather than a partisan plurality.
However, there is room for improvement in the new system. 2016 has also provided cases that highlight the need for reform, best exemplified by the race for State Treasurer. In this race, two Republicans are facing each other despite the 55.7% Democratic partisanship of the state as a whole. What happened is that the preliminary round saw three Democratic candidates split the vote – with Marko Liias garnering 20.36%, John Paul Comerford 17.97%, and Alec Fisken 13.24% – enabling two Republicans, Duane Davidson and Michael Waite, to advance with 25.09% and 23.33% respectively. Despite Democrats earning a cumulative 51.57%, the vote splitting amongst the candidates, combined with the limitation of advancing only the top two vote getters has created a deeply misrepresentative outcome by allowing the smaller preliminary electorate to eliminate otherwise viable candidates.
The solution is simple: allow four candidates to advance to the general election instead of two, and conduct the general election by ranked choice voting. This would not only retain but in fact enhance the aforementioned benefits of Top Two: by allowing more choices it would increase the number of competitive intraparty elections, and give voice to alternative candidates; yet it would avoid the misrepresentative outcomes we witness in the Treasurer’s race. This Top Four system would better accomplish the goals of Top Two while avoiding its pitfalls.