How much did the Top Two Primary change California elections?

150 150 Ed Coghlan

What impact is California’s new Top Two Primary law really going to have on California politics? It’s a question that will be better answered after Tuesday’s election, but there’s no doubt it has changed the political landscape of the Golden State.

At least that’s the conclusion of political scientists from Cal Tech and MIT who are studying the state’s new primary system. In 2010, California voters changed the primary system by approving Prop. 14, which reduces the influence of the political parties. Rather than having a guaranteed Democrat and Republican in a November general election, the new system selects the two candidates with the most votes for the November general election, even if they are from the same party. 

And there are some same-party runoffs as a result. Across the 153 U.S. House of Representatives, State Senate and State Assembly races that they researched, there are 29 races that feature candidates from the same party. Twenty of those races are Democrat vs. Democrat and nine pit Republican vs. Republican. 

However there are still many uncompetitive races. In almost 60% of the primaries in the 153 races that were studied, the first place candidate in the primary attracted more than 50 percent of the vote. 

“So far, the Top Two primary has produced neither the outcomes hoped for by the most optimistic supporters nor the dire consequences predicted by its detractors,” wrote J. Andrew Sinclair in the CalTech/MIT Voting Technology Project report which was posted on the Cal Tech website last week. “Some legislative races will be more competitive in the general election than they would be otherwise.”

But until Tuesday’s election results are known, there are still unanswered questions:

Did the candidate who appeared strongest in the primaries win the general election? Did any of the third party or non-partisan candidates win? What effect did the money spent in the campaigns, both by the candidates and the special interests have on the results? 

But Sinclair points out the researchers and political pundits will have to wait until the legislators take office to find out what they do once they are there. 

It’s that idea of better government that fueled California Forward’s interest in the measure.

“California Forward supported the idea of the Top Two primary because we feel that it creates more competitive primaries and general elections by increasing voter turnout and encouraging candidates to engage all the voters, not just the party faithful,” said Jim Mayer, Executive Director of California Forward. “We are optimistic that as more Californians understand how it works that it will achieve those goals.” 

And other states have been watching too. In Arizona, voters will decide on Tuesday whether to adopt their own version of the Top Two primary.


Ed Coghlan

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