When Barbara Boxer announced last month that she will not seek reelection in 2016, ambitious politicos across California scrambled to mobilize exploratory committees and campaigns for the state’s first vacant Senate seat in 24 years. Democrats, of course, expect to hold the seat, and for good reason: they lead Republicans by 15 percent in registered voter totals, and the power and popularity of the GOP in the state has sharply declined in recent years. But the path to Capitol Hill for Senate hopefuls in 2016 will be a new and untraveled one, markedly different from the well-worn trail Senator Boxer followed to victory in 1992. The reason for this shift is California’s top-two primary system, which was implemented in 2011 and faces its first major test at the Senate level in 2016.
The top-two primary, also called a nonpartisan blanket primary, is a primary election in which all candidates for an elected office compete against each other for the greatest share of total votes cast. The ballot does not differentiate between party, (meaning Democrats run against Republicans) and it is identical for all voters, regardless of party affiliation. Once all the votes are counted, the two candidates who secure the most votes move on to the general election, in which they are the only two candidates.
California adopted the top-two system in June 2010 after voters approved Proposition 14, a constitutional amendment that required that all statewide elections conduct top-two instead of semi-closed primaries. The proposition’s backers claimed the top-two system would enable more moderate candidates to succeed, primarily because it allows for general elections between candidates of the same party (in which the more moderate candidate is likely to win because he or she would be a more palatable choice to voters from the other party). Essentially, the top-two system was an attempt to reshape California politics by limiting the chance for debilitating partisanship to occur in the first place.
But, four years later, it is clear that this noble experiment has failed. Among the many reasons California should drop the top-two primary system, three stand out:
(1) Top-two can have anti-majoritarian consequences.
When California Attorney General Kamala Harris announced her candidacy for Senator Boxer’s open seat, several of her Democratic counterparts and potential competitors made public statements that they would not be joining the race. In other states, such declarations would hold little relevance to anyone not personally invested in the candidates making them. But in California, Gavin Newsom’s or Tom Steyer’s announcement that he will notrun for Senate is just as consequential as Kamala Harris’s that she will, because the top-two system gives the upper hand to the party that runs fewer candidates in the primary.
Since only two candidates — the two who acquire the most votes — advance from a top-two primary to the general election, parties have to worry about their voter bases splitting their votes too thinly across different candidates from their party. In California, this is a particular problem for Democrats, because the popularity of the party incentivizes many strong and well-known candidates to enter statewide elections; by contrast, as the weaker party, Republicans typically only have one or two candidates popular and robust enough to win in a deep blue state.
Registered California voters are 43 percent Democratic and 28 percent Republican, but it is conceivable that a top-two primary for a Senate seat could set up a general election between two Republican candidates. Indeed, in a primary of four Democrats and two Republicans, if Democratic voters split their votes evenly between the four candidates and Republicans split theirs evenly between the two, using the above registered voter data, the two Republicans would receive the greatest shares of the total vote and advance (each Republican would receive 14 percent of the vote share, greater than the roughly 11 percent that each Democrat would receive). Would a general election between two Republicans truly be representative of voter interests in this case, when 43 percent of the primary vote share went to Democratic candidates and only 28 percent went to Republicans? A result like that seems more like an anti-majoritarian loophole than a legitimate electoral outcome, and Californians should not tolerate a primary system can quite plausibly create these situations if they hope to elect their representatives fairly and democratically.
(2) Top-two has failed to curb partisanship in California.
The central aim of the top-two primary system was to promote moderate candidates in a political landscape dominated by hardline Democrats and Republicans. Unfortunately, in its first four years of tenure, the system has come up short, failing to make any significant impact on the partisan composition of California’s body of elected representatives. Voters are still electing extreme partisans, even in districts that had general elections between members of the same party in 2012 and 2014.
Top-two’s failure to support moderates is likely a consequence of the very nature of voting, particularly in primary elections. Doug Ahler, Jack Citrin, and Gabriel Lenz, political scientists at UC Berkeley, have indicated that voters often do not have sufficient knowledge of candidates to distinguish moderates from radicals in primary and general elections. Given that most incumbents in California are partisan Democrats and Republicans with great name recognition, it is unlikely that any moderates seeking to replace them will be more successful under the top-two system than they would have been in the previous one. Not to mention that top-two primaries have effectively shut out third parties, who have little reason to run candidates at all in a primary where they have zero chance of making the general election.
In fact, it is conceivable that top-two could actually create more partisanship because the risk of a split vote incentivizes parties to handpick one candidate to run and subsequently discourage others from joining them. Party organizations are not as strong as they used to be, but I would say they still hold enough sway over candidates to pursue this strategy if they had reason to do so. Considering there is — literally — nothing as partisan as a party itself, Californians could therefore soon be voting in primary contests between Mr. or Ms. Democrat and Republican themselves. That hardly seems an improvement from what we had before 2011 (and still have today), and it is certainly not what voters had in mind when they chose top-two in 2010.
(3) Top-two is making races in California more expensive.
Finally, the most pernicious ramification of the installation of the top-two system in California: statewide elections are becoming even more expensive than they already were. Before, campaigns for statewide offices could save most of their money for after the June primary, when party nominees needed to spend fortunes to spread their messages to Californians of all parties in preparation for the general election. Today, because primaries are more competitive and involve candidates from both parties, these same campaigns must raise and spend even greater sums to finance successful back-to-back races, first in the primary and then in the general election.
Rising campaign costs are significant because, as past readers may know, money in politics is no friend to moderates and political tyros. Incumbents have vast donor networks and fundraising expertise, and partisan candidates attract cash from business and interest groups and Super PACs that usually have equally radical and partisan goals and ideals. By forcing candidates to spend more to win public office, the top-two system may unwittingly be perpetuating partisanship and harming the moderates it was intended to promote.
California’s top-two primary system, while praiseworthy in its intention, is a flawed and potentially undemocratic experiment that has failed to accomplish its mission. It is time for this experiment to end. To be sure, though, that does not mean California should return to its previous system of semi-closed primaries. After all, the problem with top-two is not its goals, but the manner in which it seeks to achieve them. Californians should work to design a new system that promotes moderates and discourages partisanship while avoiding the pitfalls and flaws that make the top-two system unacceptable.
Nicholas O’Farrell, a sophomore studying political science, is the national editor of Stanford Political Journal.