How the Top Two primary is changing California

610 200 Ed Coghlan

This week’s primary election shows that the so-called “Top Two” primaries are changing California politics. This fall, there will be two dozen congressional and legislative races—including the U.S. Senate race—where the two candidates will be from the same party.

When Californian voters passed Prop 14 in 2010, they gave every voter the right to vote for any candidate in primary elections. The top two finishers, regardless of political party, then runoff in a general election.

For many people, having two persons of the same party running in November is a problem. However, many we talked to believe that, in districts that are solidly Democratic or solidly Republican, having a choice creates an opportunity for the candidate to be responsive to as much of the district as possible.

“It is clear the 'jungle primary' is another descendent of Hiram Johnson and the continuing quest to elevate participatory democracy in California,” said Conan Nolan, executive producer and host of the longest running television public affairs show in California, KNBC’s News Conference in Los Angeles.

The long-time observer of California politics has noticed real effects on the state's elections.

“While not all reforms work…this one has already made the general election relevant again in statewide races,” said Nolan. “That’s a good thing. Ultimately this is all about public policy and a competition of ideas. 'Top Two' may have a very good chance of helping improve both.”

One of the editors of the California Target Book, Tony Quinn, sees a lot of positives coming out of the Top Two primary. The publication gives nonpartisan, unbiased information to all who want to be kept fully informed and up-to-date on congressional and state legislative election campaigns in California.

“It is having a major impact and giving voters a real choice,” Quinn said. “The result is there are fewer ideological candidates from both parties, resulting in more centrist people who are more sensitive to the totality of their districts.”

Quinn pointed out that under the old closed primary system, low-turnout primary elections in high Democratic or Republican districts often resulted in more liberal and conservative officials than the district itself reflected.

“The goal was to elect candidates who would be reasonable, pragmatic and open minded,” said former Lt. Governor Abel Maldonado at a California Forward discussion in Los Angeles last year. Maldonado, as a state Senator, helped break a budget deadlock in 2009 by getting the Legislature to place the top two primary proposal on the ballot.

In addition to the runoff between two Democrats for U.S. Senate (Kamala Harris and Loretta Sanchez), five Congressional races, five state Senate races, and 12 Assembly races will feature candidates from the same party, as of Thursday's vote count.

California Forward was a proponent of Prop 14 and the organization’s co-chair thinks the reform is having the desired effect.

“We believe this reform and others are moving the electorate toward identifying candidates who are transpartisan and put country and state ahead of political party with the goal of making government better for all of its citizens,” said Lenny Mendonca.

Chris Gates is the former president of the Sunlight Foundation, the first executive director of Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement, and served as president of the National Civic League for over a decade.

“While Washington may be as gridlocked as ever, all across the country states are experimenting with new ways to make our political process more open, fair and representative,” said Gates, who is a Senior Fellow with California Forward. “States have truly become the laboratories of our democracy and California is helping lead the way.”

For KNBC’s Nolan, California's Top Two model may spread to other states: “I wouldn’t be surprised to see this duplicated elsewhere.”

Target Book’s Tony Quinn thinks the value of the Top Two is being reflected in how government is functioning, particularly in the California Legislature.

“Lobbyists and observers I talked with say this Legislature is better and more serious and more focused on their work than 10 years ago,” he said.

Whatever you feel about Top Two, it’s obvious that it is changing how politics—and perhaps even government itself—functions in California.

RELATED: From the Ivory Tower to the Mean Streets of Santa Monica – Commentary on Top Two from Pete Peterson, dean of Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy and California Forward Leadership Council member.


Ed Coghlan

All stories by: Ed Coghlan