California Top Two Candidates Open Primary Initiative Questions and Answers

Why does California need an open primary?
The Top Two Candidates Open Primary will complement and enhance the redistricting reform approved by voters in November of 2008. The combination of redistricting and an open primary will bring more pragmatic leaders to Sacramento and enable them to focus on finding solutions rather than partisan finger-pointing.

Furthermore, the Top Two Candidates Open Primary will better reflect California’s changing electorate. Likely voters under the age of 35 are less inclined to join the traditional parties than previous generations. The current primary system limits the ability of Decline to State (DTS) and independent voters to exercise their right to vote. These are the fastest growing voter groups in California. According to the PPIC, the number of Decline to State voters exceeds 3 million – nearly a fifth of California’s electorate.

How does the Top Two Candidates Open Primary work?
This system would be similar to the one currently used in local, nonpartisan elections. Under the Top Two Candidates Open Primary all candidates for a given office appear on the same primary ballot. The two candidates with the two highest vote totals in the primary would move onto the general election, regardless of their party affiliation. The measure applies to all state and congressional races.

How does the Top Two Open Primary compare to nonpartisan local elections?
The primary systems are similar. The most significant difference is that in local elections, if a candidate receives a majority of votes in a primary (50% + 1) they win the election outright. Under the Top Two Candidates Open Primary system, the two candidates with the highest vote totals move on to the general election regardless of what percentage of the vote they receive.

Didn’t California’s voters already approve an open primary?
Yes. 59.5% of Californians voted in favor of Proposition 198, an open primary initiative in 1996. The measure passed in all 58 counties in California and was in place for the 1998 and 2000 primaries. Prop 198 was subsequently deemed illegal by the U.S Supreme Court (California Democratic Party v. Jones) because it violated the parties’ freedom of association.

Two competing primary measures appeared on the November 2004 ballot. Proposition 62 would have restored the open primary process with some modifications to ensure its constitutionality. Proposition 60 was placed on the ballot by the Legislature to protect the current partisan primary system and was backed by both major political parties. The confusion amongst voters led to victory by the interests behind Proposition 60, while Proposition 62 went down in defeat.

Is this open primary system legal?
Yes. The Top Two Open Primary initiative is modeled after Washington state’s primary system. That system was ruled constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court’s in Washington State Grange v. Washington State Republican Party.

What role will the political parties play in this system?
The Parties will continue to be able to endorse candidates and give financial and organizational support to the candidates of their choice. This initiative does nothing to change the current partisan primary elections for President and party committee offices nor does it modify local nonpartisan elections.

Can candidates identify their party affiliation?
Candidates will have a choice to declare their party preference which will appear next to their name on the primary and general election ballots. Candidates who do not declare a party preference shall have the designation of “No Party Preference” on the ballot.

How does this initiative impact the voter registration process?
The Top Two Candidates Open Primary does not significantly modify the voter registration process. At the time they register, all voters can choose whether or not to disclose their party preference. Californians can vote for the candidate of their choice in either a primary or a general election regardless of their disclosure or nondisclosure of party preference.

Do the major political parties have a position on an open primary?
The Democratic and Republican Parties have fiercely opposed an open primary in the past, even pursuing litigation when they could not win at the ballot. Comments by party leaders indicate that they plan to finance an expensive opposition campaign to the Top Two Open Primary initiative in June 2010 because it will diminish their ability to determine the outcome of elections.

Does Governor Schwarzenegger have a position on an open primary?
Governor Schwarzenegger has long been a supporter of an open primary system, because it will decrease partisanship while increasing pragmatism in Sacramento.

How will Top Two Candidates Open Primary impact third party candidates?
The Top Two Open Primary will level the playing field for third parties by allowing them to appeal to broader base of voters in the primary. Under the current election system, third parties have an extremely difficult time winning legislative, congressional and statewide elections. Only one third party candidate has served in the state legislature in modern California history. Under a Top Two Open Primary system, for example, a general election could conceivably pit a Democrat against a Green party candidate in San Francisco or a Republican and Libertarian candidate against each other in Orange County.