During the November 6 general election, the state of California saw the effects of one fascinating component of its electoral system: its top-two open primary. Over two years ago, California voters proposed and passed Proposition 14, a ballot initiative that drastically reformed the state’s primary system. Prior to Prop 14, California conducted closed primary elections, which meant a voter could only vote for candidates in his own political party. The candidate with the most votes from each “qualified” political party—the Democratic Party, Republican Party, American Independent Party, Americans Elect Party, Green Party, Libertarian Party, and Peace & Freedom Party—advanced to the general election where he would face the candidates who advanced from the other parties. In a sense, the old system guaranteed that a third party or independent candidate could secure a spot on the November general election ballot. Proposition 14, approved by 53.8% of California voters, established a top-two primary system.
This type of electoral procedure gained national exposure when the Supreme Court ruled on a challenge to Washington state’s top-two primary system in 2008. Essentially, for all political offices other than the President of the United States and any county central committees, California holds an open primary in which it lists all candidates, regardless of party preference, on the primary ballot. Registered voters cast their votes, and the top two vote getters, regardless of party, advance to the November general election. The County of Alameda published a helpful, easy-to-follow visual guide of the top-two primary system.
Our Election Law course briefly covered top-two primaries in a recent discussion, particularly in the context of third party and independent candidate access to ballots. After Proposition 14 passed, discussion of its effect on California’s democratic process occurred at both the state and national levels. For example, the New York Times featured an editorial debate on the system’s viability.
The recent general election provided critics of the top-two primary system with their first opportunity to gauge the effects of the new process. A glance at the matchups for seats in the State Senate, State Assembly, and the U.S. House of Representatives reveals that very few third party and independent candidates made the general election ballots.