Some ideas offered to curb the partisan gridlock that envelops Congress involve changing how voters select the candidates who appear on the November general-election ballots. One proposal is to eliminate separate party primaries–registered Democrats voting for Democrats, and registered Republicans voting for Republicans—and adopt a so-called “Top-2” primary, under which candidates of all partisan stripes would run on a single ballot. Then the top two vote-getters in the primary would advance to the November election, regardless of their party preference. This system, the idea goes, would produce less ideologically rigid representatives because the entire electorate would be eligible to participate, and candidates would have an incentive to reach out to a larger swath of voters. It might also increase voter participation. There’s very limited evidence to determine its rate of success or failure.
“I actually think the Top-2 primary system probably forces even deep-blue and deep-red districts to actually consider the value of working with the other side of the aisle,” said Democratic Representative Derek Kilmer of Washington state, which uses that primary. Kilmer spoke at a Bloomberg breakfast last week.
A Top-2 primary “would prevent a hard-right or hard-left candidate from gaining office with the support of just a sliver of the voters of the vastly diminished primary electorate; to finish in the top two, candidates from either party would have to reach out to the broad middle,” Senator Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, said in a New York Times op-ed in July.
Yet there’s very limited evidence to determine its rate of success or failure. Just California, Louisiana, and Washington use a version of the Top-2 primary, and California, the nation’s biggest state, began using the system only in 2012.
It might not even matter.
“There’s not much relationship between the rules of the primary and the outcomes that the primaries are actually thought to produce,” John Sides, a political scientist at George Washington University, said Thursday at a panel on primaries that was sponsored by the National Conference of State Legislatures.