Unite America: California's Top-Two Primary Changed the Game for Better Elections

Thursday, June 8, marked 13 years since California voters approved Proposition 14, the nonpartisan top-two (Top-Two) initiative authored by the Independent Voter Project (IVP). The anniversary was accompanied by a new study that shows how impactful Top-Two has been in providing better elections for voters and a healthier political environment in Sacramento. 

The Unite America Institute issued a report titled “California’s Top-Two Primary: The Effects on Electoral Politics and Governance.” In it, the group reports that Top-Two has fostered an electoral environment that empowers voting rights and gives voters a more meaningful say in who represents them in public office.

At its core, that was the goal of Top-Two. In fact, according to IVP Executive Director Dan Howle, there were three fundamental goals to the reform:

  • “First, every voter should have an equal opportunity to vote for the candidates of their choice, regardless of the voter’s political preferences;”
  • “Second, elections should be more competitive; and”
  • “Third, every candidate for elective office should have the same requirements to appear on the ballot.”

Unite America Institute’s report finds that California’s Top-Two has checked all the boxes. 

To quickly recap, under Top-Two, all voters and candidates – regardless of party affiliation or lack thereof – participate on a single primary ballot in all state executive and legislative races, along with elections for US Congress and Senate. The top two vote-getters move on to the general election where a winner is decided.

The report shows that under the nonpartisan system, voters “are twice as likely to vote in an election of consequence compared to a traditional system with partisan primaries.” Top-Two also made “elections more competitive in part by dramatically intensifying competition in the primaries.”

More competitive elections, as well as ensuring equal voting rights for No Party Preference voters, have in turn resulted in higher turnout, and greater accountability in the state legislature as lawmakers are more encouraged to reach across the aisle and take less ideologically extreme positions. 

“In short, we find that California’s top-two system delivered on most of what advocates promised,” writes Dr. Richard Barton, author of Unite America Institute’s study. “Over the last 12 years, while electoral competition declined and polarization intensified throughout the nation, California trended in the opposite direction.”

Unite America Institute is not alone in coming to these conclusions about Top-Two in California. Since its implementation, study after study after study have found independents are more encouraged to participate in elections, there is stronger electoral competition, and voters more generally have greater confidence in state government.

ALSO READ: Research: Minorities, Young Voters Actually Matter in CA Top-Two Primary

Party leaders may not like it (they tried to kill Top-Two in the courts and have bemoaned it in the press), but voters do like the nonpartisan system– because as the evidence shows, California’s nonpartisan primary has put voters first for more than a decade.

The Road to Nonpartisan Primaries

It is worth noting that Proposition 14 wasn’t the first time California voters approved a nonpartisan primary system, and while advocates celebrate its 13th anniversary, what led California to implement nonpartisan primaries goes back much further than June 2010.

In 1996, Californians approved Proposition 198, which adopted a nonpartisan blanket primary. Put simply, all voters and candidates participated on a single ballot, and the top vote-getter from each party participating in the primary moved on to the general election.

The blanket primary didn’t last long as the Supreme Court struck it down in 2000 in the case California Democratic Party v. Jones. The high court ruled that states cannot force parties to associate with nonmembers during “their” taxpayer-funded nomination processes.

California lawmakers took advantage of the decision and adopted a semi-closed primary system for all elections that largely kept independent voters on the sidelines during the most critical stage of the election process. 

Meanwhile, Washington took a different approach with nonpartisan primary elections and in 2004 became the first state in the US to adopt the Top-Two system we see there and in California today. These systems eliminate the publicly-funded and administered party nomination process, thus removing the burden on the parties' associational rights.

The Republican Party of Washington, like the Democratic Party of California, turned to the courts to overturn the new system, but ultimately failed when the case made it to the Supreme Court in 2007, and the Top-Two system was validated the following year (See Washington State Grange v. Washington State Republican Party).

Within days of the decision, the founders of the California Independent Voter Project (now just Independent Voter Project) jumped on the opportunity to draft a California measure modeled after the Washington system. 

Two years later, faced with opposition from both major parties, Proposition 14 appeared on the 2010 primary ballot after IVP worked diligently with allies and state lawmakers on the best language for voters, and won with record participation among No Party Preference voters.

The rest, as they say, is history.

GET THE FULL STORY: The Real History Behind California's Top-Two Nonpartisan Primary

Unite America Institute’s study adds to the success story that has unfolded over the last 13+ years. And, it highlights the further potential of where Top-Two can go, and what reform advocates can learn when pursuing their own nonpartisan reform measures.

In 2020, for example, two initiatives passed in Alaska and St. Louis that combined a nonpartisan primary system with an alternative voting method, highlighting ways California could expand on its own nonpartisan system.

Alaskans for Better Elections expanded on the nonpartisan top-two primary in their state with an amendment that advanced the top four candidates from the primary to the general election, and combined that with ranked choice voting in the general election.

Nevada voters said yes to a nonpartisan top-five system in 2022 (also known as Final Five Voting) that also combines nonpartisan primaries with ranked choice voting. If the measure is approved again in the 2024 general election it will become law. Final Five is also being considered in states like Arizona, Wisconsin, and elsewhere. 

There is also a large coalition of organizations from both sides of the political aisle looking to pass a top-five ranked choice system in San Diego -- a municipality with twice as many voters as the state of Alaska.

It is hard to say where these measures would be without the success of Proposition 14. But what is clear is that Proposition 14 showed what is possible with nonpartisan election reform, and how nonpartisan primaries can give voters a meaningful voice and greater accountability among the people elected to represent them.