The Good, the Bad and the In-Between: Washington’s Implementation of Top-Two Voting
Top Two has opened up the most consequential elections to all voters and has created an incentive for candidates to reach out to a broad coalition of voters for support.
At the same time, by limiting the general election to the two top candidates, Top Two has resulted in elections where sizable proportions of voters have no choice of a candidate that aligns with their own interests—and has even created unusual elections where no majority-party candidate is available on the general election ballot.
In all, Top Two gives voters more power than the standard partisan primaries used in many other states, but the process still leaves much to be desired. Washington’s Top Two system would benefit from implementing two key reforms present in nearby Alaska: expanding the number of primary winners and using an alternative voting system in the general election, such as ranked-choice voting or approval voting. In so doing, the Evergreen State could improve its elections and reaffirm its status as a model to the rest of the country.
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Americans want their votes to matter. To improve on its voting system, Washington could benefit from looking at its neighbor to the north, Alaska, which advances four candidates to the general election and uses RCV to determine the winner.
In 2004, Washington state voters approved Initiative 872 (I-872), the “People’s Choice Initiative.” I-872 restored Washington’s then recently overturned blanket primary and designated that the top-two vote-getters in the primary would be advanced to the general election. Proponents of I-872 argued that the “top-two voting” system would increase competition and voter participation. Opponents argued that the new system would reduce options for voters in the general election and would result in single-party general elections.
Since then, sixteen years of top-two voting elections have shown mixed results for both opponents and proponents of the system. Overall, top-two voting has provided Washington citizens with more options in primary elections, generating more competition and giving them more say in outcomes. On the other hand, it has had little impact on voter participation and has occasionally resulted in races that left many voters feeling unsatisfied with their choices.
Legislators and election scholars in Washington and around the country can take away a key learning from Washington’s top-two voting experience: The top-two approach is an improvement to partisan primaries and plurality elections, but it could be improved by having more candidates advance out of the primary and by using an alternative voting system in the general election to ensure a majority winner.