Many perspectives, 1 simple etiquette

Reform Expert Says Nonpartisan Elections Increase Power of Voters

Created: 15 September, 2015
Updated: 18 October, 2022
5 min read

In August, Jason Olson, director of Independentvoice.org, and Dr. Omar Ali, a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and expert scholar on populist political movements, published a study called, A Quiet Revolution: The Early Success of California's Top Two Nonpartisan Primary.

In their findings, Olson and Dr. Ali highlight a handful of positive trends that have already emerged since the nonpartisan, top-two primary was first implemented in 2012. Among these trends is an increase in competitive elections in California -- an increase they say was so dramatic that the state now has the most competitive elections in the nation.

The study finds:

"An annual study by the Lucy Burns Institute of all state legislative elections in the country from 2008 to 2014 shows California as the most competitive for the 2012-2014 period and shows a 25% increase in competition over California’s 2010 score (the last year of partisan elections), which ranked the state ninth. Analyzing elections based on the margin of victory also shows a dramatic increase in electoral competitiveness. The number of races deemed “close,” with a margin of victory of less than 5%, increased from less than 3% in 2010 to about 10% in both 2012 and 2014. Races deemed “competitive,” with a margin of victory between 5% and 10%, more than doubled from 4% in 2010 to 8.5% in both 2012 and 2014."

However, the way Olson and Dr. Ali examine competitiveness is different from what people are accustomed to seeing from traditional political scientists and media analysts. In an interview for IVN, Olson said the biggest thing wrong with politics today is that everything is framed as red versus blue, including how we view competitiveness.

"[E]very issue, every event, every critical decision is framed as, 'is this going to be a win for the Democrats or for the Republicans?' What about what's best for the American People? It's not even in the picture anymore," he explained.


Jason Olson discusses California's nonpartisan, top-two primary on Reason TV.

Every election cycle, voters watch the same coverage of media talking heads pulling up an electoral map of the United States that is colored in bright red and a deep blue. Political commentators define competitiveness based on how likely it seems a district's electorate will be split between the Republican or Democrat running, but Olson believes this definition is not relevant anymore because "most election districts have become single-party districts -- either through gerrymandering or demographic shift."

"It's always the majority party candidate who is going to win no matter what vs. the sacrificial lamb candidate of the other party," Olson explained. "So in the fall there's really no choice - you either vote for the candidate who is going to win no matter what or you throw away your vote."

Expounding on the last point, Olson said competitiveness should be viewed by whether or not voters are actually given a choice in elections -- did the winning candidate really have to compete for everyone's vote? He added that when candidates have to try to win every vote they can to win an election -- instead of solely relying on being in the majority party in a district -- that is what empowers voters.

There is a fundamental difference between how supporters of the nonpartisan, top-two primary view choice in elections versus how opponents view choice.

Opponents of California's nonpartisan, top-two primary argue that candidates outside the Republican and Democratic parties are not treated fairly since they have so far been mostly unsuccessful in placing in the top two spots in statewide races. Many people who reject the current system say this denies voters real choice in November, when the most eyes are on the election and the most voters participate.

Olson addressed these concerns in a recent interview on Reason TV, especially in response to the development of same-party races in heavily Democratic or Republican districts.

"Those old elections, sure you had a Republican who was always going to win in a Republican district versus a sacrificial lamb Democrat. You might feel better for 5 seconds if you are a Democrat checking the box, 'Sacrificial Lamb,' but you really didn't have any power and there is really no reason for that Republican to come knocking on your door."

"Contrast that to the current system where, yes, in a Republican dominated district -- if I am a Democrat -- I am probably going to get two Republicans in the fall--but rather than just running to their base, they can't do that, they're going to split their base. So now both Republicans have to go out and figure out, how am I going to get enough independent voters? How do I get enough Democrats? How do I get enough third party voters to put together a coalition that is actually going to win?"

Olson believes this has empowered voters and has actually made elections more competitive.

During his interview, Olson said we need to be clear about what the nonpartisan, top-two primary is and what it isn't. There are many people, both supporters and opponents, who say that nonpartisan elections are about electing more moderate candidates or increasing voter participation or just giving independent voters access to the primaries. While all of these may be the natural consequences of nonpartisan elections or the desired consequences of the reform, Olson argues that none of them are what the top-two primary is about.

"It is a way to take power away from the parties and give it back to the voters," he said.

"Most voters want someone to represent them that will care about them. Nearly half the country are now independents, but even most Democrats and Republicans feel that way as well. They want someone who will reach out to them even if they differ on certain issues. They want good government, not partisan victory. And that's what Top-Two is all about."

Olson believes it is crucial that voters understand this about nonpartisan election reform. When it comes to how democracy functions, he says it has been a game changer, and has revolutionized not only the voting process, but the political process by enhancing the power of voters who didn't have much power at all under a partisan system.

Along with more competitive elections, Olson and Dr. Ali found that all voters have greater access to the voting process and the California legislature has become much more functional post-nonpartisan election reform versus pre-reform. However, Top-Two has only been around for a couple of election cycles, and it will take a few more to determine the full long-term effects of the reform.

Read the full study here.

Photo Credit: Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com