Many perspectives, 1 simple etiquette

Voter Empowerment and Greater Competition: The Impact of CA's Top-Two Primary

Created: 14 May, 2020
Updated: 14 August, 2022
5 min read

There is one indisputable truth about California’s nonpartisan, top-two open primary: It has completely shaken up the political landscape in the Golden State.

Leading top-two researchers Christian Grose, professor at USC, and Dr. Charles Munger, Jr. of Stanford University, discussed in detail how transformative nonpartisan primaries have been in California during a recent Zoom conference call hosted by Open Primaries and the USC Schwarzenegger Institute. 

Munger and Grose have published several papers on the top-two primary, including Munger’s “California’s Top-Two Primary: A Successful Reform,” and “Political Reforms in California are Associated with Less Ideologically Extreme State Legislators,” featuring findings from Grose. Both researchers come to the same conclusion: California’s top-two primary has increased electoral competition, voter participation, and has created an overall healthier political culture.

A majority of Californians voted to adopt the top-two primary in 2010 under Proposition 14, authored by the Independent Voter Project. The primary reform allows all voters and candidates, regardless of party, to participate on a single primary ballot. The top two vote-getters move on to the November election.

In other words, it levels the playing field for all participants in statewide, legislative, and non-presidential federal primary elections. Participation is not conditioned on party affiliation, and taxpayer-funded party primaries are done away with in all contests except for president.

ALSO READ: The Real History of Top-Two Nonpartisan Primary Electoral Reform

Much of the opening conversation during the Zoom call focused on a common criticism of the top two system, which is that there is a chance the November election will come down to two candidates of the same party. In California, this accounts for a handful of legislative races each election year.

Munger, who is not only a leading expert on the impact top-two has had on California but was a key driver of Proposition 14’s success, says California is seeing a significant change in the types of candidates who win under top-two, even in same-party races.

“In the same-party runoffs, whenever you don't have some token incumbent [...] whenever you have a real contest, it turns out the person who takes second in the primary wins a third of the time [in November] in California,” he said.

Generally in primary elections, the candidate with the strongest partisan coalition wins. This is true under any primary type. However, in same-party contests in the general election, the candidate who is not endorsed by this partisan coalition wins in a fair number of legislative races.

This, according to Munger and Grose, changes how candidates campaign and how they legislate. Same-party races force the candidates to make clear distinctions between themselves, and it becomes increasingly important that politicians represent a broader segment of the electorate and earn voters' continued support.

Munger said both he and Grose live in heavily Democratic districts. Thus, the odds of a same-party contest in the general election are high. Munger, a registered Republican, says he feels he has a stronger voice under the top-two system than under a partisan primary system.

“I don’t think it is a whole lot of fun to watch a Democrat who I strongly disagree with walk into office,” he said. “I value the fact that I can vote for a Republican in the primary, and I can vote for the better of the two Democrats [in November]. That empowers me.”

Munger and Grose also recognize the concern this instills in incumbents and party insiders, who now have to worry about an intra-party challenge from a candidate who is less partisan, and therefore is more likely to form cross-partisan legislative coalitions to come up with long-term policy solutions. 

“You don't always need to run against someone in a general election. You just need to fear that will happen,” Grose said.

Grose specifically spoke to the impact this has on members of Congress elected under the top-two system, who he says tend to be more moderate. He says the threat of that intra-party challenge alone is enough to change how they vote on legislation.

Think of it as a reverse of what voters see more broadly in Congress. Most incumbents worry about a primary challenge. However, in most states, this concern is over a challenger who has greater appeal with their party’s base, which studies show is shrinking and moving further toward the ideological extremes.

The result is congressional inaction. Just as long as incumbents aren’t doing anything to anger their party’s base and say the right things on the campaign trail and in the media, they are guaranteed re-election in nearly all contests.

Under the top-two system, however, incumbents have to worry about a challenger within their own party who campaigns to represent a much broader segment of the electorate -- a challenger who could attract independent voters or voters registered with the other party.

Thus, Munger says, party insiders tend to oppose the top-two system because it creates greater competition in elections. They can no longer control the outcome, and it requires a greater effort to get “their candidate” elected.

ALSO READ: California: Partisan Insiders Frustrated by UNRIGGED Top-Two Primary

California’s top-two system even beats out the national average for Republican vs Democrat general elections for state legislative seats. Open Primaries President John Opdycke pointed out during the Zoom call that research shows R v D races account for approximately 60% of legislative contests nationwide (2018 was a higher than normal year at 67%). Meanwhile R v. D races account for approximately 75% of legislative contests in California (in 2020, it is about 74%).

And what about California voters? Are they satisfied with the top-two system? Yes. In fact, according to statewide surveys approximately 60% of California voters approve of the nonpartisan system. This includes a significant number of party voters as well.

Grose also pointed out that USC Schwarzenegger Institute research found that politicians are much more likely to be responsive to independent voters in open and top-two states. Thus, these voters are much more likely to feel heard and are much more satisfied.

So to quickly recap, Grose and Munger conclude that top-two:

  • Empowers voters outside the partisan majority;
  • Increases primary and general election competition;
  • Increases intra-party and inter-party competition;
  • Forces candidates to clearly define their distinctions to appeal more broadly to voters;
  • Produce less ideologically-extreme policymakers;
  • Increases voter participation; and
  • Increase candidate responsiveness to the growing bloc of independent voters

Voters interested in finding out more about the effect of open and top-two primaries can find several studies on the USC Schwarzenegger Institute’s website. This includes research from Munger and Grose, but also other academics who have looked into various types of primary and election reform.

Photo Credit: AP Photo