Richie Ross Spills the Beans on Top Two

It’s not every day you hear a political consultant complain about election rules that stuff money into his pocket. But that’s just what Richie Ross, the veteran Democratic political consultant, did in a recent op-ed criticizing California’s new top-two election system.

The big story of the new system, Ross writes, “is that these latest ’reforms’ resulted in outcomes that don’t change much but cost a lot more.”

In the old system, a candidate in a primary election needed to raise and spend enough money to reach the slice of the electorate eligible to participate in the primary. If she won her primary and the district was uncompetitive in the November general election, as is the case for most districts in California (and across the country, for that matter), there was little need for more campaign fund-raising and spending. All the big money was concentrated in the handful of competitive November races.

In the new system, as Ross points out, the money chase goes on all year. A candidate in the first round must raise and spend enough to reach the entire electorate. And if she finishes in the top two, it’s back to money-raising again, in some cases to run against a candidate from her own party.

“In district after district the costs will double, the begging for money will double, the work will double – and none of the outcomes will change,” Ross writes. “Democratic districts will remain Democratic. Republican districts will elect Republicans. Front-runners will win and so will those on whom they rely to fund this ’reformed’ system.”

The biggest winners, Ross points out, will be the unregulated independent expenditure committees that special interest groups use to intervene in election contests. And as if on cue, the day after Ross’ piece appeared Carla Marinucci reported that big business interests have launched a super PAC, California Now, modeled on the national efforts of Karl Rove, to elect “business-friendly” candidates in November.

It’s tempting to file the increased power of money under top-two as one of those unintended consequences of reform. But that would be wrong.

As we wrote in California Crackup, primary reform has long been the pet project of the state’s corporate elite, an effort to increase their power in state politics without having to rely on a state Republican party unable to offer credible candidates and acceptable ideas to California voters. Prop 14, which created the top-two system, was no exception. Like other primary reform measures before it, the ballot measure was driven and funded by billionaires and business groups. They designed the measure to give themselves more power.

Giving more power to those with money may not be what most people consider “reform,” but it seems to be working as planned for those who foisted it on us.