California’s political system has long been the focus of tinkerers who want to make it more responsive to the voters. This fixation goes back at least to the Progressive Era, when Gov. Hiram Johnson helped usher in reforms that are still the subject of debate today — the initiative, recall and referendum. The goal, of course, was to give the voting public — rather than special interests and party bosses — a greater say in how the state is governed. One of the more significant recent California electoral reforms to attempt this is the “top two” primary, which was approved by voters (Proposition 14) in 2010 and first implemented in a 2011 special election. Previously, for most races the parties nominated their candidates in a primary election, and then the winners — Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, etc. — would face off against each other in the November general election.
In this new primary system, all candidates compete in an open or “jungle” primary regardless of their party affiliation. The top two vote-getters move on to the general election — even if both of them are from the same party. It applies to state legislative races, congressional seats and statewide constitutional races (governor, treasurer, etc.).
Advocates argued it would increase competition and decrease the power of the party bosses. Some pitched it as a means to moderate the views of officials. In the old system, they said, Democrats would run to the left and Republicans would run to the right to appeal to their base primary voters. Because so many districts are overwhelmingly Democrat or Republican in registration, that meant that candidates would never have to court the broader electorate.