Independent Voter Project’s Top-Two Nonpartisan Primary Still Shaking Up California Politics

Created: 15 December, 2016
Updated: 21 November, 2022
4 min read

California’s top-two nonpartisan primary, authored in 2009 by the Independent Voter Project (IVP) and approved by California voters as Proposition 14 the following year, has become the proverbial “Political Writers Full-Employment Act,” and will continue to be for some time.

We have now completed three cycles since it first took effect in 2012, and as with most good things political, there is virtually no consensus, even among so-called “objective writers” as to its impact on California elections.

Opinions run the full gamut, from those who bemoan a “lack of choice” in the general election, to those who bemoan a limited choice between two of the same party, to those who bemoan the “death” of third parties, to those who bemoan the election of moderates and to those who bemoan the loss of power of the political elite, allowing independent voters to participate, and everything in between.

Gee, we didn’t know we would have such an immediate impact on so many people.

Take those camps and a dozen or so more and like any special interest group, you have a tale to tell and a song to sing. What lacks in nearly all of these critical assessments -- both the positive and the negative -- is a focus on, or even an understanding of the goals of top two in the first place.

READ MORE: Top-Two Primaries, Third Parties, and the Rights of Individual Voters

As we move into the New Year, IVP plans to take a close look at as many of these perspectives as possible and provide our own view on them. The idea to do this actually came from our own bit of special interest. We’ve noted and find it somewhat amusing (sort of) that there has been conference after conference, panel discussion after panel discussion on the impact of top two without any attempt to have its authors participate. For those we have attended, well, we also served as the organizer.

It’s a little like discussing a bill’s legislative intent without talking to the legislator who authored it.

The IVP perspective will be presented in no particular order relative to the various issues that have been raised. That’s part of the fun. Lots to talk about; lots to debate.

The core belief of IVP is that democracy is best served when the most people participate. To that point, it cannot be forgotten that the bottom line issue with the top two nonpartisan primary is that it is about voting rights. Not political party or candidate’s rights. Not the rights or needs of special interests or the political consultants that attempt to frame a candidate or issue. Top two is about the rights of voters -- all of them -- regardless of party preference or lack thereof, to simply have their voices heard.

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Not surprisingly, a major focus of our effort was aimed at the independent voter. Prior to the passage of Prop. 14, Decline to State or No Party Preference voters were not allowed to have their voices heard in partisan primaries. And, independent candidates were not even allowed to run. The political parties -- all of them -- think that’s just fine. We disagree.

Political parties are private organizations. As such, they have the right to say who participates in their nominating process. However, this nominating process takes place not only at taxpayer expense, but at the expense of the citizenry at large.

Why should a voter be required to join a private organization in order to take part in this most important part of the election process? Prop.14 addressed this question by taking away the formal nominating process and narrowing the field down to the top two vote-getters, who then face off in the November general election. And appropriately, everyone gets to vote for whomever they choose from a typically wider, more diverse choice of candidates than under closed primaries.

Frankly, Prop. 14 took away the ability of political parties to control elections by, among other things, excluding independent voters, who are by far the fastest growing group of voters in the state. Equally important, it empowers citizens with a vote that now matters in elections where it truly never did before.

ALSO READ: Peace: Top-Two Primary About Voter Rights, Not Political Parties

And, relative to the behavior of elected officials and candidates, it is having the effect of making the Legislature less partisan as they are beginning to see they now have to appeal and answer to a broader swath of voters as opposed to the fringe of their own political party.

If you are reading this and wondering, “OK, so how? Why?” Well, you’re the audience we’re looking for.

While it may not be perfection, and IVP is continuing its ongoing conversations with proponents of other voting styles, we believe very strongly that top two has made a major difference in a very positive way. We look forward to breaking it all down for our readers and the discussion that will surely follow.

Editor's note: This article was written by IVP Co-Chair Jeff Marston.

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Photo Credit: Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com

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