Last month, the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California published a report assessing the early effects of California’s top-two primary system, first implemented two years ago. “To the surprise of many,” it said, “turnout was the second-lowest on record.” Time to update that report: In the top-two primary’s second showing, turnout was the lowest on record. Based on Election Day returns, statewide turnout on Tuesday was 17.8 percent. That number will go up some, perhaps 6 or 7 points, after all the late-arriving mail-in ballots are counted and the provisional ballots sorted out, but the bottom line will still be dismal. In all likelihood, turnout will fall below the previous low of 28.2 percent. And then it can be reported that the first two experiments with the top-two primary resulted in the lowest and third-lowest voter turnouts on record. The problem is, it’s not an experiment. It’s written into the California Constitution and cannot be changed without another vote of the people. It’s time to start having that discussion.
When California voters decided to change the way the state’s primary elections work, the move was cast as an effort to moderate a state Capitol gripped by polarization. If the top two vote-getters in a primary faced off against one another in November regardless of their party affiliation, the reasoning went, hard-nosed politicians who typically put party purity above all else would be forced to court less partisan voters. That could mean more centrists elected to office, more political compromise and better governance. But with the approach of only the second election since the enactment of the “jungle” primary — the first featuring candidates for statewide office — some argue that the change has had a decidedly undemocratic effect, muzzling the voices of small-party candidates. The Green Party, the American Independent Party and other minor groups will now rarely — if ever — appear on the general election ballot, even though they represent 1.2 million people. And they could eventually find themselves out of existence in California, the critics fear. “It’s just a violation of voting rights,” said Richard Winger, a Libertarian and publisher of the San Francisco-based Ballot Access News. “Because the right to vote includes the right of the choice.”
California voters will engage in a new election process next year that does away with traditional political party nominations and replaces them with primaries that could result in two candidates from the same party squaring off in the general election. In the so-called top-two primary election in June, state and congressional candidates of all parties will appear on the same ballot, allowing all voters to choose nominees without partisan constraints.
The new election system, approved by voters last November, will go into effect after the once-a-decade redrawing of political districts was done for the first time by an independent citizens commission, rather than the politicians themselves.
Proponents say the top-two primary, along with the new districts, will spur competition, help guard against spoiler candidates and potentially lead to more moderate lawmakers being elected. They further hope a new dynamic will emerge to lessen partisan rancor. But critics contend the new primary will limit choice, drive up the cost of campaigning and spell the end of third-party candidates.