The plea made to California voters to dilute the power of political parties was so insistent that it was written completely in capital letters in the June 2010 statewide voter guide. “PARTISANSHIP IS RUNNING OUR STATE INTO THE GROUND,” screamed the ballot argument in favor of Proposition 14, a broad change voters ultimately approved in the rules governing candidate primary elections. Its premise was simple: Scrap party-based primaries in statewide, congressional and legislative elections. Put all candidates on a single ballot with the two top vote-getters moving to November. If they were from the same party, so be it. Proposition 14’s supporters believed the change would empower centrists, candidates and voters alike. The ballot guide promised these newly elected politicians would be “more practical individuals who can work together for the common good.” California has now conducted 469 regularly scheduled races under the top-two primary — elections for governor, Congress and every seat in the Legislature. The bottom line: changes, yes, but likely only on the margins.
“For Democrats, I think the top-two has had an impact,” said Eric McGhee, a research fellow at the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California. “But it’s certainly not enormous.”
McGhee says the most measurable result has been more mildly liberal Democrats elected to the Legislature, bolstered by an enormous amount of cash from independent political action committees. These lawmakers, more often than not aligned with business groups, gained notoriety by refusing to accept some of their party’s more sweeping ideas on combating climate change.
But researchers haven’t seen the same measurable impact on Republicans in the state Capitol, or in the partisanship of Californians elected to Congress. And that may be because voters themselves aren’t less partisan. “The top-two grafts a nonpartisan system onto an electorate that still relies a lot on parties to make decisions,” McGhee said.