Is California’s Top-Two Primary System Working?

In 2010, California voters passed Proposition 14, the Top Two Primaries Act, changing the way primaries were run in California. Instead of separate primaries for the various parties, there is now one general primary for all candidates, regardless of political affiliation. The top two candidates with the most votes go on to the ballot in November. The 2012 general election was the first full election cycle with the new rules in place. California is only the second state so far to have this kind of format, with Washington having passed a similar measure in 2004.

Proponents of the new format felt that having all voters, as opposed to political parties, determining candidates would allow for more moderates to rise to the top. There was also a belief that third party candidates would have an equal chance of competing against the two major parties.  The grand hope was that it could completely upend politics as usual and give voters a real say in who represented them.

The results have been somewhat surprising.

Instead of having just a few choices on the ballot voted on by registered members of a political party, primary ballots are filled with candidates. Party affiliation is still listed, though there has been a rise of the “unaffiliated” candidate, California’s version of the Independent. These unaffiliated are generally a previously registered Democratic or Republican candidate who would not normally get the major party support. There are also lots and lots of people on the ballot, including third party candidates. In my congressional district, California’s 33rd, which has been represented by the now retiring Congressman Henry Waxman for 40 years, there were 18 people on the ballot for his seat in the June primary.

The new primary elections coincided with a new redistricting map also voted on by the public. Redistricting was taken out of the hands of the legislators and into a nonpartisan committee of people representing all of California and all parties. The new map was drawn largely along geographical boundaries instead of voter demographics. This resulted in the merging of several districts, especially those that are traditionally dominated by one of the two major parties. Seven districts ended up with the top two being from the same party.

In the end, voters are still choosing based on their party preference, leaving third party candidates out of the running, and the top two candidates representing the Democratic and Republican parties.

Still, low turnout in primaries can bring surprising results. Since parties cannot nominate a candidate, anyone can run, often leading to several candidates from the same party splitting the vote. In the case of my very, very liberal district, of the 18 candidates on the ballot, only 3 were Republicans. It was believed that the November ballot would be a contest of who was the most liberal. However, because the remaining Democratic candidates split the vote (coupled with one of the lowest turnouts in our state’s history), one lone republican was able to garner enough votes to run in November. It is unlikely he will win against the party supported Democratic candidate in November, keeping the district – also known as President Obama’s ATM – safely in the hands of Democrats.

In the wake of the extreme polarization plaguing our nation, many are seeking a solution to fix the gridlock. Less than two election cycles is not enough time to determine if these types of results will continue.  However, there is some indication from the latest primary that even in districts with one party rule, minority party voters are having a big impact on the results. This could force candidates, especially if they are from same party, to move to the middle in order to win their seat.

In other words, they will have to appeal to voters not in their party to overcome splitting the vote within their own – especially if they wish to seek reelection.

It is an often repeated mantra that whichever way California goes, so goes the rest of the nation. If the goal is more moderate candidates that produce bipartisan results, well, California – and the nation – will have to wait and see.

Photo credit: Thinkstock


Jim Ven
Jim Ven2 years ago

thanks for the article.

Patricia Guilhem
Patricia Guilhem3 years ago

Merci pour le partage.

Betty Kelly
Betty Kelly3 years ago

I want all candidates to be required to take a "Dr.Phil style" liars test.---So many, after elected, are not upholding their declarations made when asking for our vote. With so many liars running, it's like opening a box of chocolates; you never know what you are going to get.

Dan Blossfeld
Dan Blossfeld3 years ago

Peter B.,
If you are worried that only two candidates are on the ballot when you go to vote, then perhaps you should vote in the primary, when all the candidates are present. Unless we redistrict such that all districts are divided equally among the major parties and independents (a near impossibility), some districts will have two candidates from the same party on the ballot in November. This will not change which party wins, as any district which has two candidiates as the top two vote getters would have elected that party in November anyway. This whole system was set up to appease those who do not bother to vote in the primary. They feel that their vote in the general election has some meaning now. Why do you feel that the top two vote getters in a primary have less integrity than the top two in the generael election?

Marianne R.
Marianne R3 years ago

I agree with Glenn H.

Wesley Struebing
Wesley Struebing3 years ago

Thank you for the explanation, but I still don;t see it as really viable, especially since it seems it comes down to party lines, anyway.

Evy J.
Evy J3 years ago

This sounded good in theory when it was sold, but in practice it's not any better than the usual party-specific primaries. The "unaffiliated" thing is a joke. At least third party candidates were on the ballot before.

James Maynard
James Maynard3 years ago

A heavy priority in every State
should be to take redistricting
out of the hands of politicians.
It should be the job of a true,
non-partisan board.

Eric Lees
Eric Lees3 years ago

It's a step in the right direction, anything to improve the odds of a 3rd party candidate making it. The 2 party system has a near monopoly on American politics especially at the national level. I think it should be an open primary with the top 3 or 4 rather than the top 2 go on to the final vote. The Establishment has made it increasingly difficult for a 3rd party to even get on the ballet in most states.

Why not get rid of the party affiliation as well on the ballet? If you don't know enough about the candidates to vote without having that little letter next to their name then mabey you should not be voting.

Maria Teresa Schollhorn

Thank you.