California's Top-Two Blues, and How To Break Out of Them

Posted by Jennifer Pae on September 08, 2017


As California Republicans and Democrats express their frustration with Top-Two, it’s clear that people across the political spectrum aren’t done reforming the Golden State’s election system. Luckily, a breakthrough may be right around the corner.

How did we get here?

In 2010, California voters approved the Top-Two ballot measure by 53.8% to 46.2%. The law allows voters to participate in the primary election regardless of their party affiliation. The top two candidates go on to the general election, even if those candidates are from the same party. The above image with the bear shows an example of Top-Two from the 2016 general election ballot.

The CA State Legislature in 2017

Advocates of Top-Two said the law would force candidates to be more attentive to the full electorate: first in the preliminaries that are no longer segregated by partisan preference and then in general elections where candidates might face an opponent from their own party.

Since Top-Two passed, Democrats have edged up their majority from approximately 63% to 68% of the state legislature. This supermajority gives them the coveted ability to pass new taxes, even with the state’s restrictive ⅔ requirement. You’d think California Democrats would be popping the bubbly and toasting Top-Two. Surprisingly, they are not.


Eric Bauman, California Democratic Party Chairman

Eric Bauman, CA Dem. Chair

In a statement, California Democratic Party Chairman Eric Bauman argued the top-two system “weakens the Democratic Party.”

“Progressives have been forced to spend nearly $200 million in contests featuring two Democrats,” Bauman said. “This is a system that silences the Democratic base and completely excludes third parties from even competing in the fall...the fact that this initiative was filed by Republicans underscores how flawed the top-two system really is.” Bauman said repealing the system is a core priority for the party.

If Democrats who’ve been handed a supermajority are frustrated, you can imagine how Republicans feel. Thomas Palzer, a Republican eyeing a 2018 run against Sen. Dianne Feinstein says: “It’s a bad law and it needs to be repealed. It affects every voter. They’re being cheated out of the ability to look at top candidates from every party and then make their decision.”

Third parties are frustrated too. Michael Feinstein, a spokesman for the Green Party of California and a member of the Santa Monica City Council from 1996 to 2004, said that Top-Two “effectively [bars] ballot access to third parties” and “inhibits the evolution of the politics of our state.”

FairVote CA has written at length about the problems with Top-Two. We’ve found that the timing of elections matters -- most people turnout to vote in November general elections. Looking at the last four-election cycles, turnout of registered voters is on average 28.4% lower during the primary election than during the general election:


Turnout of Registered Voters in California


Primary Turnout

General Turnout














Under Top-Two, most candidates are eliminated in the primary, when turnout is lower and less representative. June voters are also less reflective of the changing demographics of the state. Thus, Top-Two largely maintains the influence of this unrepresentative primary electorate.

Ranked Choice Voting (RCV),  A Breakthrough in Choice


California voters want to get away from extreme partisan politics and have more choice. That was the reason we adopted Top-Two in the first place. But even members of the Democratic party, the greatest beneficiary of the system, are calling for its repeal. This leaves Californians nowhere to go but forwards.

Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) is a proven solution. RCV is now being used in San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley and San Leandro to elect Mayors, Supervisors, City Councilmembers, and School Boardmembers. The data shows that more women and people of color are successfully competing than ever before. Civility in campaigns is also on the rise because successful candidates must reach beyond their traditional base of voters to build coalitions. With more choice and a stronger voice, it’s not surprising that voter satisfaction with elections has increased in these regions as well.


Let's Make it Happen

Using RCV in California’s state and federal elections would require a constitutional amendment and approval by state voters. This means another state ballot measure. If California's legislators are as frustrated with Top-Two as they say they are, they can put RCV on the ballot as soon as 2018, just as they did with Top-Two in 2010. Otherwise, voters could put it on the ballot themselves with enough signatures.

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  • anonymous anonymous
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