What It’s Like to Govern Under California’s Top Two

610 200 Lenny Mendonca and Pete Weber

(Photo Credit: Christopher Padalinski/Flickr)

It’s election season and the pundits are out in force—increasingly apoplectic about the predicted apocalypse to be wrought by California’s Top Two primary system this June. But make no mistake. The loudest voices and most oft-repeated arguments are strongly partisan ones:

“Because of Top Two, Democrats won’t win back the House in the fall!”

“Because of Top Two, Republicans will be held off the November ballot!”

At California Forward, we believe the purpose for political reform is to shift power back to the people—not to bolster political parties or empower special interests.

In 2008, California Forward’s Leadership Council identified open primaries as one of several political reforms that would contribute to the incremental and necessary process of shifting power back to the people. Analysis conducted for CA Fwd at that time documented the potential for improving voter engagement and policymaking.

Along with Citizen’s Redistricting (Proposition 11 of 2008) and term limit reform (Proposition 28 of 2012), early evidence suggested that the Top Two primary is having a positive effect on many candidates and incumbents. More voters, including third party and decline-to-state voters, have the chance to have a say earlier in the process. And voters have a broader range of choices among candidates, even within the same party.

But we wanted to delve deeper than what happens on election day to learn how these reforms are affecting the longer-term process of governing in California. So, we commissioned a set of interviews with current state lawmakers, as well as leaders outside of government who have a strong interest in effective state governance, to hear directly from those working in or around the Capitol.

The interviews were not intended as a scientifically rigorous research study. Others, such as the Public Policy Institute of California, are taking on that task. Rather, we sought to speak with lawmakers and others who, if the reforms are playing out as supporters hoped, should be seeing and feeling those effects and have positive experiences to share.

We were not disappointed. The stories we heard suggest that the reforms are beginning to break up the outsized influence of special interests and shift that influence back to voters, where it belongs. We heard how Top Two, along with other political reforms, is creating new and healthy governing dynamics in Sacramento in a variety of ways. As Assemblymember Kevin Mullin expressed it, “Taken in totality, these three reforms—the Top Two primary, Citizen’s Redistricting, and term limits reform—have created a political climate of cooperation and bipartisanship. Together, they have California working and doing lots of policy work that can be a model for the rest of the country.”

Under the Top Two system, legislators recognize they are accountable to all of their constituents and must be responsive to their entire district if they wish to be reelected. Legislators report a strengthened relationship with their district, which in turn has shifted the power dynamic away from narrow partisan interests and toward the priorities of the district as a whole. With this shift, legislators are starting to feel more empowered to negotiate with party leaders to address the real problems and needs of their districts, even if those are not the priorities of party power brokers. “Special interests funnel millions of dollars of campaign cash through the parties to elect their chosen candidates,” said Assemblymember Marc Levine. “They want a sure thing. They do not like Top Two because it ends their sure bet of being able to force their candidate on a district. Top Two upends the system—magnificently or terribly, depending on whether you like the status quo.”

Legislators reported feeling empowered to take more mainstream and nuanced policy positions that may not be in complete lockstep with the preferences of party leadership or the rabidly partisan base. Even within the Democratic party, which holds a decisive majority in the Capitol, legislators report that a broader range of views is being represented in the lawmaking process. Said Asm. Levine, “Having counter-weights and counter-balances are good things. We don’t all rely on the same trough as far as where the support and campaign power come from. We’re not all dependent on a Speaker or on one special interest any longer. To have a multi-polar political world, I believe is a good thing. I believe we will have better policies that come from it, and much less dependency on one ideology. And that’s good for California policy.”

We heard stories of how Top Two is empowering the formation of more moderate coalitions and bipartisan behavior within the legislature. Lawmakers reported increasingly feeling they can be authentically themselves—the person their constituents elected and expected to show up and represent them in Sacramento—rather than feeling pressured to toe the line on party orthodoxy. Some felt that Top Two is beginning to have a positive influence on public policy, as lawmakers negotiate policy positions that reflect the more nuanced views of their constituents, rather than the ideologically extreme views of special interest groups.

While acknowledging some of the challenges the Top Two system can have on the process of campaigning, none of the legislators interviewed as part of this inquiry supported moving back to a closed partisan primary system. In fact, only one interviewee had even a minor tweak to the process to suggest at this point. All recognized the need to move forward and not backward, and to allow for more experience under this still-new reform before tinkering further in pursuit of the elusive perfect system. “Maybe it’s just a matter of learning the system,” said Senator Bill Dodd. “The Democrats in Republican areas and Republicans in Democrat areas haven’t yet understood the full power they have to make change in representation that’s closer to them. It may not be perfect, but it allows them to choose somebody that is closer to them than the person who might normally win if it wasn’t under the Top Two system.”

Others agree. A recent New York Times article on California’s Top Two primary stated “Christian Grose, a professor of political science at the University of Southern California, who is writing a book on the top-two system, said the concern was ‘overblown’ and the scenario feared by critics would, in all likelihood, rarely come to be. ‘The top-two primary reform has made a big difference,’ he said. ‘It has obviously disrupted California’s politics, in a good way, or else the two major parties’ consultants would not be complaining about it.’”

Rob Lapsley, president of the California Business Roundtable, summed it up this way: “At the end of the day, the fundamentally important question is: does this strengthen our democracy and create more confidence in engaging people to vote, or not? The answer so far is that the combination of Top Two, redistricting reform and term-limit reform has been good for voters. And it’s been good from a legislative standpoint.” That’s evident in the much higher rating voters are giving the legislature since these reforms were passed.

At California Forward, we will continue to support electoral innovations that evolve toward the public interest. But for now, we believe that California’s Top Two primary, in conjunction with other reforms such as the Citizen’s Redistricting Commission and term limit reform, is having a positive overall impact on how the state is governed.

And that is something to be celebrated, not demonized or abandoned.


Lenny Mendonca is co-chair of California Forward Leadership Council and director emeritus (retired senior partner) of McKinsey & Company.

Pete Weber is co-chair of the California Forward Leadership Council and founder of the Fresno Bridge Academy.


Lenny Mendonca and Pete Weber

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