Top 2 to Top 5? New Ranked Choice Voting Option on the Table

Created: 20 March, 2018
Updated: 14 August, 2022
9 min read

Mainstream business experts in America are waking up to the failure of our country’s political system.

Michael Porter of the Harvard Business School is without equal in his expertise on competition and strategy in industry. An icon to a generation of MBA students, Porter and his co-author Katherine Gehl, a business leader and former CEO, have applied “Porter’s Five Forces” to study our political system in a landmark study released this past September: Why Competition in the Politics Industry Is Failing America.

Porter and Gehl’s diagnosis: “Today…our political system has become the major barrier to solving nearly every important challenge our nation needs to address.” Porter and Gehl go on to place the blame on a “failure of political competition”—a duopoly of political power shared by the two major parties.

The study’s number one prescription: “Restructure the election process.”

Featured in that prescription: America’s voting system is an albatross. Its “first-past-the-post” voting system is used by few other western democracies. Not coincidentally, countries using other methods have more than two parties with legislative representation.

Our plurality-winner-takes-all system works such that the most votes wins even if it’s less than 50%. This dooms the independents and minor parties to be spoilers. Experts tell us that gives us two viable parties — no expert required to tell us that is precisely what America has.

In the quest to move away from plurality winners, the “top-two primary” and ranked-choice voting have emerged as two of the most achievable policy reforms.

Top-Two Primary

California’s top-two primary system passed in 2010 by ballot initiative. Since 2012, all candidates show up on one June primary ballot, including independents. The top-two candidates advance, regardless of party preference, to a November runoff.

This is true for all state and federal legislative elections, and all statewide elected offices, including governor.

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Some of top-two’s advocates promised more moderate outcomes and more competitive November contests.  This was a brilliant sales pitch in 2010. Safe-seat districts meant that the few voters in the favored-party that turned out for a June primary would determine the November winner. Incumbents rarely lost, and as such rarely had incentive to reach across the wide chasm that separated them from lawmakers in the opposing party.

ALSO READ: Top-Two Primary: It’s About Accountability Stupid

Primary winners would often have vote totals that were well below 10% of a district’s voters, yet their November win was a foregone conclusion. It was democracy at its worst.

Advocates relish top-two’s attack on the two-party control of the primaries. Perhaps not surprisingly, the two major parties opposed the top-two initiative, and they have continued to loath it.

In a decidedly Democratic-leaning state, the Republicans complain when two Democrats advance. This has happened in a good number of legislative races since the system was implemented in 2012, and perhaps most notably when Democrats Loretta Sanchez and Kamala Harris both advanced to face each other in the U.S. Senate race in 2016.

But the opposite can happen if too many Democrats run in a district — a risk in a “blue wave” year like 2018.

Take a district that typically votes 60% Democrat, 30% Republican, and 10% other. Now picture a year when that primary ballot includes ten Democrats, two Republicans, and five others. Under this scenario, two Republicans could easily get the most votes and advance.

You can almost hear the intra-party arm-twisting and backroom deals being cut to keep too many Democratic candidates from staying in the race. Democrat and GOP bosses are developing a new skill set — candidate suppression.

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Aside from those Democratic and GOP operatives, however, few in California are likely shedding tears over the two major parties’ angst about top-two. They want good government. But has top-two delivered that?

Pros and Cons

The 2018 election cycle will be just the fourth under top-two. Its success as a system has yet to fully play out. That said, there are early opinions.

A study by proponents of top-two points to a dramatic increase in the number of competitive November races and record numbers of defeated incumbents, with an additional key factor being independent redistricting that did not factor incumbency in drawing lines.

That study separately highlights the ability for all voters to participate in and impact the primary and the runoff election results. Finally, they claim that more broadly-elected lawmakers are not beholden to partisan primary voters and therefore are more effective in reaching across the aisle.

All of this makes total intuitive sense.

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

On the negative side, critics would point to a Stanford study that says California top-two has had minimal impact on electing more moderate lawmakers. Still, others say that California is becoming a one-party state.  No Republican has been elected to statewide office since 2006.

And those hopeful that a fully non-partisan election method might elect some independents or minor-party candidates have been sorely disappointed. California’s Assembly and Senate is 100% comprised of Democrats and Republicans, as are its statewide offices.

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The non-partisan electoral playing field that top-two has created is clearly not enough to overcome major-party funding, campaign machines, and inertia.

Popular So Far

Overall, 60% of California voters approve of the system, according to a December 2017 study by the Public Policy Institute of California, and perhaps the best tribute to it is the number of states that are talking about copying it.

There are 4-5 states where top-two has been introduced as legislation. Hurdles to enactment in most remain high, but perceived success of the system is causing a buzz.

While the fanfare has been all about California, perhaps due to its size, Washington has the same system.  Nebraska has top-two just for its state legislature. Louisiana has no primary, but a non-partisan general election ballot that moves the top two to an immediate runoff if no candidate has a majority.

Ranked Choice Voting

Ranked choice voting (RCV) is another voting method that moves away from plurality winners. Voters rank their choices, top choice, second choice, etc. — ideally of all candidates on the ballot. If no candidate gets a majority of first-choice votes, the ranked ballots then allow the field of candidates to be winnowed methodically through a series of instant runoffs.

In successive rounds, the lowest vote getter is eliminated, and his or her votes are transferred to the next remaining candidate ranked by the voter. A majority winner ultimately emerges, arguably with the broadest support.

RCV is a versatile tool that can be used in a primary or general election and in a partisan or non-partisan context. It can be used to combine a primary and runoff into one contest.

Five southern states even have their overseas voters use it in all their congressional elections that might have runoffs.

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RCV has won passage statewide in one case, Maine, where it is currently being implemented for all primaries and for its U.S. House and Senate races.

RCV has otherwise gained traction much more at the local level. Cities such as Minneapolis, San Francisco, Santa Fe, Portland (Maine), and several others use the method for less partisan or non-partisan elected offices, including mayoral races.

Still other cities are currently considering making the change to RCV. The selling point for those cities and towns: One RCV election can deal with a fractured field of candidates and produce a majority winner.

In many cases, this can allow the elimination of a costly and low-turnout primary or runoff.

Perhaps spurred on by success on the ballot in Maine, RCV is under legislative consideration statewide in several states as well.


RCV proponents claim — credibly, I would surmise — to have the more elegant and pure solution. But RCV often faces “it’s too complicated” objections. These objections will abate with its growing familiarity.

Top-two is a blunter, less-perfect instrument. It restores a majority outcome, but at a cost of only two November choices — and few outside the two major parties have advanced to the November runoff.

Separately, vote-splitting in its many-candidate primary may prevent the strongest two candidates from advancing. It is far from ideal policy.

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But what top-two lacks in finesse, it makes up for with simplicity. Everyone on the same ballot, top two advance to a runoff. Parties don’t matter. Voters get it.

Perhaps due to its simplicity, top-two may be an easier sell in some states than RCV.

Competing Methods That Should Merge

So far, RCV and top-two have been mutually exclusive solutions. But might a marriage of top-two and RCV be a step forward?

With this approach, more candidates — perhaps up to five — would advance from the non-partisan primary.  Policy experts say that a threshold of viability would be important — perhaps only candidates with greater than 5% could advance. “Top 5 over 5%” fits nicely on the bumper sticker.

Ranked choice voting would then be used in November to achieve a majority.

Here are the benefits:

  • More choice in November — five being greater than two;
  • RCV in November eliminates “wasted votes” or unintended consequences of supporting a lower-odds candidate;
  • Far less likely that a major party would be shut out from the November ballot;
  • More chance for an independent or minor-party candidate to advance; and
  • Extremely high likelihood that no viable candidate is left behind.

Ranking five choices is a manageable voter task that would be worth these benefits.

The move to “top-five” from top-two seems to ring so positively that it could carry the task of simultaneously selling RCV (whereas selling RCV on its own in many states may be too steep a climb).

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Work Together

Some RCV advocates have opposed top-two. I think that approach is a mistake.

My advice to the RCV advocates: Continue to advance RCV wherever you can, but embrace the adoption of the top-two, non-partisan primary elsewhere. When a state has adopted top-two, look for the opportunity to advance one state to “top-five” (with RCV), and seize it. Perhaps that time is now in California?

Once top-five-with-RCV has worked well in one state, other top-two states will follow with this incremental change. Perhaps others will adopt it in one step.

The Business School Case

Great minds in business look for the synergies of combining two businesses — where 1 + 1 = 3.

Top-two has proved to be a succinct and popular reform step at the state level. Ranked choice voting is a more-perfect mechanism that is winning approval for use in local races. Both methods have their benefits, but also their limitations.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that business strategy-icon Michael Porter and his co-author Katherine Gehl jumped right on the synergies of merging top-two and RCV.

What are the key details of Porter and Gehl’s “Restructure the election process” prescription?

Their advice:

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  • Establish non-partisan top-four primaries
  • Institute ranked choice voting with instant runoff in general elections

Why do I push for “top five” versus Porter & Gehl’s “top four”?  More choice. Easy to rank five.

It’s sort of like the “eleven” in Spinal Tap. It’s one better.

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