FairVote's Fix for Top Two in California

by Drew Spencer // Published June 18, 2013
Fixing Top Two in California2

FairVote just released a new Policy Perspective on the issues with Top Two in California and how they can best be addressed.

In 2010, California adopted the "Top Two" primary system for electing candidates to state and federal offices. In most states, to get on the general election ballot for state and federal offices, a candidate must either run in the partisan primary election of one of the state's recognized political parties or petition as an independent. However, under Top Two, all candidates must run against each other in a single preliminary election in which voters have exactly one vote; then, only the two candidates who received the most votes may appear on the general election ballot, irrespective of political party preference or endorsement, even if both candidates identify with the same political party.

FairVote has consistently been at the forefront of critical analysis of Top Two. In 2010, we published a Policy Perspective on the weaknesses and remedies for Proposition 14, the California ballot measure that enacted Top Two, shortly after its passage. In 2012, we published a report thoroughly analyzing the results of elections under Top Two in Washington State from 2008 through the 2012 preliminary election.

Now, we are proud to announce a new Policy Perspective, this one detailing a simple reform that could help to resolve nearly all of Top Two's maladies in a way that both accommodates the goals of Top Two supporters and the criticisms of its opponents. That reform leaves the Top Two preliminary election exactly the same, but in November the top four candidates candidates would appear on the ballot in an election decided by ranked choice voting.

Under Top Two, the most common result is a general election featuring a Democrat and a Republican, effectively replicating what would occur under partisan primaries with little effect other than to exclude all alternative political parties and independents from the general election. Occasionally, Top Two instead features two Democrats or two Republicans in the general election. In heavily partisan districts, this can help to elect the candidate from the majority party favored by more voters overall, rather than just voters affiliated with the majority party, but it comes at the cost of denying every voter the right to express a preference outside of that party in the general election. 

Under Top Four, nearly every election would both feature at least one Democrat and at least one Republican while simultaneously including more than one major party candidate from the district's majority party. This means that more voters will be included in heavily partisan districts without losing their right to express their first preference for a candidate from a different party. It would also allow smaller alternative political parties and unaffiliated candidates access to the general election ballot, provided they were popular enough to get around 5% of the vote in the preliminary election (as many were in California in 2012). And the use of ranked choice voting would allow voters to express a genuine first choice while still being able to state a preference among the candidates most likely to win.

By appealing to the goals of both supporters and critics of Top Two, we expect Top Four to be a serious option for future reform in some states currently using partisan primaries, as well as a simple way to improve elections in states currently using Top Two. As the new Policy Perspective details, it really does represent the best of both worlds.