Many perspectives, 1 simple etiquette

5 Early Successes of California's Nonpartisan Open Primary

Created: 26 October, 2017
Updated: 17 October, 2022
5 min read

Americans everywhere are fed up with the state of politics. At the federal level, political paralysis and polarization prevent Congress from solving pressing issues every day.  At the state level, it can be just as frustrating.

Yet, while polarization and paralysis impede the progress of many state legislatures, one in particular seems to be heading in the right direction and actually getting things done -- California.

Earlier this year, California passed a bipartisan cap and trade emissions bill -- something virtually unthinkable for Congress. The “bipartisan” component of this legislation is worth reiterating; stakeholders reached across party lines, came together, and compromised to pass this bill.

How was this possible? It’s simple: California’s voters and legislature recognized that a fundamentally flawed electoral system was the root source of paralysis and polarization. So they changed it.

In 2008, voters passed Prop. 11, which handed redistricting over to an independent commission. In 2010, California passed Prop. 14, which established nonpartisan, top-two primaries for all non-presidential federal and state elections.

This system allows California’s independent and unaffiliated voters -- that’s 24% of the state’s voting eligible population -- to participate in all congressional and state primaries, with the top two candidates advancing to the general election.

The system has quickly propelled California from a symbol of legislative dysfunction to a blueprint for successful electoral reform.

How do we know the system is working? Open Primaries answered this in a research study with political scientist Omar H. Ali on the “early successes” of California’s top-two, nonpartisan primary system. The study uncovered how California’s system has gradually been chipping away at polarization and paralysis.

While it’s only been five years since California first began using top-two, open primaries, the benefits reaped from the system are already making themselves clear. Here are five of them.

1. California has the most competitive elections in America

In 2010 -- before nonpartisan open primaries were in place -- a whopping 79% of the California State Legislature and the California congressional delegation did not face competitive general elections.

Closed, partisan primaries gave easy wins to incumbents and members of a given districts’ majority party, while disadvantaging more moderate candidates. With the exclusion of independent voters, candidates had little reason to appeal to anyone but core party supporters during the primaries, while ignoring the large swaths of moderate voters -- and still winning.

But now, under a top-two, nonpartisan primary system, California boasts the nation’s most competitive elections. About 50% of all races are now competitive, and an annual study by the Lucy Burns Institute showed California as the most competitive state for the 2012-2014 period as well as a 25% increase in competition from 2010.

More competition propels better, more inclusive candidates to the general election -- and once in office, they are incentivized to continue doing their best to appeal to all constituents.

2. A record number of incumbents have been defeated in California

Since the adoption of nonpartisan open primaries, California has seen a spike in unseated elected incumbents. And the numbers show it.

Under California’s old partisan system, only two incumbents were defeated in state legislative and congressional elections between 2002 and 2010. But this changed dramatically once California adopted top-two, nonpartisan open primaries.

In 2012, 10 incumbents lost their re-election bids. This included Pete Stark, who never faced a competitive November re-election during his nearly 40 years in Congress. In 2014, another four incumbents were defeated.

3. California legislators have broken with their parties on key votes

When politicians understand they will have to appeal to all voters when seeking re-election, they will be just as accountable to them -- and not their parties -- while in office. Naturally, under California’s top-two, nonpartisan primaries, several legislators have publicly broke with their parties on key votes.

For instance, Republican State Senator Anthony Cannella crossed party lines to openly stand with Democrats to co-sponsor legislation allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. He couldn’t have said it better when he expressed that redistricting and nonpartisan election reform freed lawmakers from obedience to their parties and allowed them to engage more broadly on specific issues.

“It’s given more courage to my Republican colleagues,” he said. “They were afraid of getting primaried. Now, it’s not just their base they have to appeal to.”

4. Multiple current and former legislators embrace California’s top-two primaries

While open primaries make it harder for politicians to win office, multiple elected officials have nonetheless embraced the system’s increased accountability to voters and ability to pass legislation.

Here’s what a few of them had to say:

Assemblywoman Autumn Burke of the California Legislative Black Caucus, which has expanded its membership from eight to twelve under the top-two, nonpartisan primary system, stated, “as challenging as the open primary system has been for many of us, it’s kept us in touch with our constituents.”

Democratic Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins said the combination of top two and term limits has created “wholehearted change in how the legislature is structured and comes together.”

Legendary Democratic politician Willie Brown, the former Assembly Speaker and the 41st mayor of San Francisco, declared top-two a game-changer for the state.

“The top-two primary system has taken elections out of the hands of party insiders and allowed competing Democrats and Republicans to strike out on their own to attract crossover voters,” said Brown.

5. Public approval ratings for the California state legislature have skyrocketed

While national public approval ratings for Congress are at an abysmal 16% (Gallup), ratings are just the opposite in California. Thanks to its cooperative legislature that actually gets things done, 42% of Californians now approve of their state legislature (up from 14% in 2010).

However, at just 18%, congressional approval ratings among Californians remain low. With that said, can Congress learn a thing or two from the early successes of California’s nonpartisan, top-two primaries? The numbers show they can, and should.

Editor's note: This article, written by Open Primaries intern Stephanie Geier, originally published on Open Primaries' blog and has been modified slightly for publication on IVN.

Photo Credit: Brandon Bourdages / shutterstock.com