Thinking about California’s soon-to-be enacted top-two open primary election takes me back to my high school days. During that acne-spotted and boy crazy part of life, like everyone else, I was introduced to the democratic process. And elections were far less complex back when our most politically influenced moments were deciding which lunch table to sit at.
Our class presidents, our prom queens, Mr. and Ms. “Best Smile” and even our class clowns were all selected by way of a true democratic process in which everyone got to participate and vote for whomever they wanted. Regardless of whether they were a jock or a band geek, jocks weren’t limited to voting only for fellow athletes and band geeks weren’t allowed to vote only for their flute-toting companions.
And the real kicker: if you were neither a jock nor a band geek you could still vote for whomever you wanted! Yes, those were much simpler times, indeed.
Granted, a statewide election carries significantly more weight than picking a class president, and with it, a troubling complexity with arcane and sometimes limiting rules. The recent adoption of the “Top Two Primary” aims to resolve some of this.
The evolution of the primary process in California has been a rollercoaster for better part of the past two decades.
Up until 1996 a “closed” primary system governed elections in California—those registered as jocks could only vote for jocks and those registered as band geeks could only vote for band geeks . The same went for artists, loners, honors students and cheerleaders. Those who did not identify with any of these cliques were left out of the primary election altogether.
In 1996 voters passed an initiative (Prop 198) to move to an “open” or “blanket” primary and removed all clique barriers to voting. A cheerleader could now put her democratic faith in the president of the Math Club.
Four years later, in 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that this open primary was unconstitutional on the grounds that it violated the political parties’ First Amendment right of association. Prop 198 was overturned.
Fast-forward 10 years into an age of increased partisanship and gridlock among the two parties, and voters revisited the issue and passed an initiative (Prop 14) to make the move back to a form of open primary election called the “Top Two Candidates Open Primary.”
This change welcomes back to the polls the disenfranchised, the unrepresented and the unaffiliated, the artists, loaners, honors students, cheerleaders, and of course the jocks and band geeks. In high school, it’s typically the most popular kid that wins. In this case, it’s the two most popular candidates that will advance to the general election. It’s now that simple.
At the premiere of this new process on June 5, all voters will see the very same list of candidates and all votes will be treated equal, even if you still pick up a trumpet or shoot some hoops on the weekend. June 5th will be the first indication of whether the basic system we learned so long ago in high school is actually the best one for California.