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California's Path to a Top-Two Nonpartisan Primary

by Wendy Innes, published

California is a unique place. Just ask anyone who's ever lived there.

So naturally the state boasts a unique system for nominating its elected officials as well and the road to the system that's currently in place in California was a bumpy one. But, as with many things, whether or not the change produces the desired result remains to be seen.

Closed Primary Prior to 1996

From 1909 until 1996, California had a closed primary system, meaning that in order for a voter to participate in the primary they must choose a party, and that often left independents out in the cold if they didn't want to affiliate with one of the two major parties. Since independents are the fastest growing population of the electorate in the state, this posed a real problem.

According to California Forward, the closed primary system served to disenfranchise independent voters:

"California suffers from dysfunctional government. Legislators can no longer make timely decisions in the public interest. The reasons for this are many: gerrymandered districts, unlimited independent expenditures, appeals to ideological extremes and closed primaries that depress voter turnout and interest."

"Reforming the primary process will not solve all these problems, but will bring more accountability to the process," the group said in a report on election reform in 2010. "Voters currently disenfranchised by closed primaries will be able to participate in primaries that count, as will independent voters."

Proposition 198

Voters in California passed Proposition 198 in 1996, which established a blanket primary in California. Under this system, every voter, regardless of party affiliation, was eligible to vote on any candidate for federal and state political offices. The measure was passed with an overwhelming majority.

In 1998, the first blanket primary was conducted. Poll volunteers handed out a single ballot type for all voters except in cases where there were central committee races being voted on as well. For those races, partisan ballots were distributed based on the selected party.

The primary was a success in terms of voter satisfaction and participation. Voter turnout was also noticeably higher than previous primaries.

California conducted its first presidential primary under the blanket system in 2000. Poll workers were required to hand out ballots by party because even though each ballot had the same candidates on it, the election office had to report presidential voting based on party.

Only 3 other states -- Louisiana, Washington, and Alaska -- have had a blanket primary system.

California Democratic Party v. Jones

Following the primary in March of 2000, both the Republican and Democratic parties, along with some smaller groups, banded together to challenge the blanket primary law. After a lower court battle, California Democratic Party et al. V. Jones, et al. made its way to the Supreme Court. California's blanket primary was ruled unconstitutional, because it violated the political parties' right of association, which is protected under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.

The closed primary system returned, but under a new law, voters who were not registered with one of the seven qualified political parties, called declined-to-state or DTS voters, could cast a ballot for one of those parties if the party adopted rules allowing DTS voters to vote in their primaries.

Proposition 14

In June 2010, Proposition 14 passed with 54.2 percent of the vote and would change California's primary voting laws once again. Under Prop 14, all eligible voters would receive the same ballot for most state and federal offices. The two candidates who receive the most votes, the top-two vote getters, or TTVG, regardless of party affiliation, would then advance to the general election ballot.

Party affiliation will only matter when voting for  the president.

Proponents of the measure say that it would, like Proposition 198, allow for more open elections and increase voter turnout. They also say that the officials elected will be more practical and less prone to partisan politics.

Opponents of the measure say the politicians behind the bill would be able to disguise their "real" agendas and the result would be more "politics as usual."

First Test of the New System

The first test of the new TTVG system came in the June 2012 primary. According to a report from the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project, the new system is neither the perfect solution that proponents hoped for, nor is it the disaster that opponents tried to avert. But the results were interesting none the less:

  • In 29 of the 153 State Assembly, California State Senate, and United States congressional primary contests, the new TTVG system generated same-party runoffs, meaning that both candidates had the same party affiliation.
  • The same party run-offs in some districts made races that would ordinarily go uncontested competitive.
  • Nearly 60 percent of races were still uncompetitive.

More research will be needed to determine what the long term impact of the new TTVG system will be.

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