In 2009, Abel Maldonado, then a state senator, brought the top-two open primary to California. The change allowed the two leading finishers in a primary to proceed to the general election regardless of party affiliation. It set into motion a system that would reshape the state’s politics. Today, Maldonado is as much vilified as lauded in the state, but he is supremely satisfied with what he did. “You know what, you get a little lazy sometimes, and with a closed primary system, where you keep independents from voting, let me tell you something, you can be lazy,” he told me. “With this open primary, you have to work for the taxpayers.” In an open primary, people vote for any candidate regardless of party affiliation. But in California, a top-two primary system paved the way for two candidates of the same party to confront one another in the general election. As a result, political parties are no longer guaranteed a spot in the general, nor can they dispense with moderates within their own party in a primary election. Louisiana and Washington are the only two other states that have adopted such a system.
In 2009, California’s state legislature was struggling to pass a budget. Republicans dug in their heels because the Democrats’ budget contained a massive tax hike, going against a pledge signed by many GOP legislators to pass no new taxes. As state services were threatened and the public began to show its resentment, Democrats searched for the single Republican vote they needed to pass the budget, which required a two-thirds majority. They turned to Maldonado, who was a moderate Republican.
Maldonado agreed to align himself with the Democrats, if they would help advance the implementation of the top-two primary in return. The system appealed to Maldonado as a result of his experience in his district, which was almost evenly split between Republicans and Democrats. Maldonado had come up through the political ranks convinced of the need to appeal to both sides, and he knew the benefit this brought to politics: moderate candidates who knew how to work with other party. The gridlock in the California legislature over the budget provided the opportunity Maldonado had been looking for.
“Why would I vote for a budget that had temporary tax increases, and some other things that I really didn’t like?” he said. “Why would I vote for something without a piece of reform that would change California, and in the future not have these long stalemates in the budget process?” Maldonado recalls Democrats trying to pass the budget on their own, and then tapping him for help when they couldn’t get the number of votes they needed.