But Not When It Counts: A Critique of CA’s Top-Two Primary

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Feb 12, 2015

By Andrew Gripp

Let’s imagine there are three voters all in the same district: Mr. Blue, Mrs. White, and Mrs. Green.

•Mr. Blue is a registered Democrat, and his favorite candidate is also a Democrat, Candidate L – a liberal. His second preference is Candidate M – a moderate Democrat.
•Mrs. White is an independent, non-affiliated voter, and her preferred candidate is Candidate I, who is not endorsed by any party and is funding his campaign on his own. Her second favorite candidate is candidate M – the same moderate Democratic candidate who is Mr. Blue’s second choice.
•Mrs. Green is a registered Green Party member, and her favorite candidate is a Green, Candidate G. Her second preference is Candidate L, Mr. Blue’s first choice, and her least favorite candidate is a conservative Republican contender, Candidate C.

Now, let’s suppose that an election in this largely moderate Democratic, yet still ideologically diverse district is held according to the rules of an open partisan primary, which allows all voters to participate in any one party’s primary contest. Here are the results from the June primary:

•Mr. Blue votes for his preferred Candidate L, but Candidate M wins the Democratic primary and will appear on the general election ballot in November.
•Mrs. White cannot vote for her preferred candidate because he is not involved in a partisan primary, so she votes in the Democratic primary for her second choice, Candidate M, which she is allowed to do under the open primary format.
•Mrs. Green votes in the Green Party primary for Candidate G, who wins the party’s nomination.

When these voters visit the polling station in November, they have 5 options on the ballot for this one seat: (1) Democratic nominee Candidate M, (2) Green Party nominee Candidate G, (3) the self-funded independent Candidate I, (4) conservative Republican nominee Candidate C, and (5) a space for a write-in.

Now, let’s consider that the same voters in the same district cast their votes in the June primary under different rules – those of a nonpartisan, top-two primary, where each voter can vote for any candidate regardless of partisan (non-)affiliation. Let’s suppose that our voters vote for their top choices. Here is the at-large outcome of this June primary:

•Candidate M receives 45% of the vote
•Candidate I receives 23% of the vote
•Candidate L receives 22% of the vote
•Candidate C receives 8% of the vote
•Candidate G receives 2% of the vote

Thus, when voters visit the polling station in November, they have exactly 2 options: (1) Candidate M or (2) Candidate I, as there is no space for a write-in.

Here is the crucial question: which of these two scenarios allows for voters to cast their ballots in a way that more closely aligns with their genuine preferences?

According to supporters of the top-two reform in California, the latter is preferable for one distinct reason: “At its core, nonpartisan primaries are about voting rights,” writes Steve Peace, co-founder of the Independent Voter Project. Peace co-authored the top-two primary measure in California.

More specifically, such primaries are said to protect the right of all citizens to vote in the primary election without having to belong to a private organization: i.e. a political party. Peace and others also claim that the top-two primary will precipitate several salutary political consequences, including the empowerment of moderates, greater political accountability, and increased voter turnout.

Chad Peace notes that despite a low turnout rate following the first implementation of the top-two primary in California in 2012, the case for top-two rests on the issue of empowering all voters, as the reform was “about giving all voters a meaningful vote when the most people vote: the general election.”

Let’s test that last claim. Looking again over our two hypothetical scenarios, in which general election – the one following the open partisan primary or the one following the nonpartisan top-two primary – do voters have a more meaningful vote?

In the first scenario, Mrs. White and Mrs. Green are happy, because they can both vote for their preferred candidates in the general election – Candidate I and Candidate G, respectively, and while Mr. Blue is disappointed that Candidate M, his second preference, won the Democratic Party’s nomination, he still has a meaningful choice: he can vote for Candidate M, or he can vote for his top preference, Candidate L, as a write-in candidate.

In this scenario, even though Candidate M wins the general election (it is a moderate Democratic district, you’ll remember), each of these voters was able to cast a meaningful vote by voting for their preferred candidate (though they could certainly have chosen to do otherwise, such as by voting “strategically” for a second or even third preference with the hope of electing a stronger candidate to avoid a victory for a less-preferred candidate).

In the second scenario, however, it is only Mrs. White who is able to vote for her top choice in the general election, Candidate I. Mr. Blue voted for his second choice, Candidate M, while Mrs. Green, who was unable to cast a ballot for either of her preferred candidates, voted strategically for Candidate I (to do her best to keep Candidate M, whom she considers an invertebrate figure, out of office).

Now, let’s consider the claim in question: in which scenario do voters have a more meaningful vote where it counts, that is, in the general election?

The first scenario is the one that empowers all voters, as they can vote for their top choice if they want (that is, for a party nominee, a self-funded independent, or a write-in candidate). In the second scenario, only one voter, Mrs. White, got to vote for her preferred candidate, while Mr. Blue and Mrs. Green could not, especially since they did not have the choice for a write-in, which is the case in California since the top-two reform.

At first, it is somewhat surprising to see that those who usually decry partisanship and the entrenched political duopoly are in favor of an electoral arrangement that makes it easier for Democrats and Republicans to keep challengers off the ballot, especially given the added hurdle that requires statewide candidates in California from minor parties to collect 10,000 signatures (up from 150 prior to the reform) if they want to appear on the nonpartisan primary ballot, unless they can afford to pay an expensive fee instead.

As Ellen Brown, a former Green Party candidate in California has observed, minor party candidates struggled to make it even on to primary ballots since the implementation of top-two: between 1992 and 2010, minor party candidates appeared on an average 127 primary ballots per election cycle. In 2012, that number dropped to 17 for state and congressional primary ballots, and it fell again in 2014 to just 13.

No wonder the minor parties in the state took top-two to court.

The rest of this editorial can be found here.

This sentence appears in the center of the article: “ ‘At its core, nonpartisan primaries are about voting rights,’ writes Steve Peace, co-founder of the Independent Voter Project. Peace co-authored the top-two primary measure in California”.

I found this to be intriguing, so I put “Steve Peace Independent Voter Project” into a search engine, and found this site: Independent Voter Project .

It appears that the Independent Voter Network is run by one of the authors of the Top-Two Proposition in CA.

14 thoughts on “But Not When It Counts: A Critique of CA’s Top-Two Primary

  1. Jill Pyeatt Post author

    Perhaps other people were aware that the IVN site is run by a co-author of the ballot initiative which resulted in this being the law in CA, but I wasn’t aware of it until this article. This certainly explains why the site keeps posting Top-Two positive articles.

  2. Beau

    Restoring the write-in vote on the General Election ballot might be a good first step in undoing Only Two’s grossly unfair outcomes.

  3. Jill Pyeatt Post author

    Mr. Peace keeps insisting that Top-Two will work to the benefit of alternate parties in CA, although it may take ten years to do so,

  4. Dave

    IMO I do believe Top Two is living on borrowed time. The first time two republicans make the general election ballot for Senate or Governor there will be utter chaos, and I Imagine attempts at an immediate recall of the winner( if such a thing is allowed for senators.) After that I think the law would be pretty well discredited and repealed. And any other state that would be considering it would just have to look at the California example, which neither the Dems or Reps would have any desire in seeing repeated.

    But I’m an optimist. The worse case is the two parties using this as a way to increase party discipline and limit the number of Dems or Reps on the ballot, making a scenario where the top two are from the same party( or at least the Republicans, the marginalized of the two parties) impossible. If this happens, I could see Top Two sticking around for a very long time.

    But as I’ve said, I’m an optimist. If I recall correctly, The California Comptroller race nearly ended up between two members of the GOP, and i know at least one congressional race that was a top target for Democrats did. If an actual important race is impacted, I think that’s the death kneel for top two. It makes me wonder if third party activists will consider the strategy of voting Republican in an attempt to mess with the system, or if Republicans will try to sell this to them. Talk about a Faustian bargain!

  5. paulie

    Restoring the write-in vote on the General Election ballot might be a good first step in undoing Only Two’s grossly unfair outcomes.


    Very unfortunate that we are losing on this in the courts and the legislature on this, at least so far.

  6. Richard Winger

    People who say top-two will work better sometime in the future never talk about Louisiana, which has had its own version of top-two starting in 1975 for state office, and 1978 for Congress. Just as in Washington and California, in Louisiana no minor party member for federal or state office has ever placed first or second in the first round, if there were at least two major party people running. Just to be clear, though, Louisiana’s version of top-two is far better than California and Washington, because the first round for congressional elections in Louisiana is in November, so no one is cut out of campaigning in the general election season. If a runoff is needed it is in January. For state office the state has elections in the odd years before presidential elections, and again the first round is an election and nothing further happens unless no one gets 50%.

    People who keep saying, “someday it will work better” remind me of apologists for the Soviet Union during the 1920’s and 1930’s. Yes, they said, Stalin is a ruthless dictator, but someday the country will get over that and it will be the best society on earth.

  7. Andy

    How about launching an initiative petition to Repeal Top Two Primary in California? The petition signature requirements in California are lower than they have been in 20 plus years due to low voter turn out in 2014, so this is a good time to strike, as the signature requirements may go up again if voter turn out is higher in 2016.

  8. Andy


    February 13, 2015 at 11:06 pm

    It would still take millions of dollars to get competitive and then have money to compete in the ad wars.”

    It is better to start raising money and doing all of the work to get the process going now than to sit around whining about Top Two for years. Libertarians in California ought to lead the effort, but they should coalition with the Green Party, the American Independent Party, the Peace and Freedom Party, the Constitution Party, or anyone else who is interesting in minor party and independent candidates and in making the election office more fair.

    The time to strike is now, while the signature requirements are lower than they have been in California in 20 plus years.

  9. Martin Passoli

    Good idea Andy. Since you are currently in CA maybe you can take the lead on bringing this project and coalition together.

  10. Andy

    “Martin Passoli

    February 13, 2015 at 11:24 pm

    Good idea Andy. Since you are currently in CA maybe you can take the lead on bringing this project and coalition together.”

    I am probably not going to be staying here, so I am probably not the best person to lead this effort, however, if I thought that there was going to be a real effort behind repealing Top Two Primary, I might change my mind about leaving.

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