Fixing Top Two in California

// Published June 18, 2013


In 2010, California adopted the "Top Two" primary system. Under that system, political parties no longer nominate candidates who appear on the general election ballot. Instead, all candidates must compete against each other in an initial "preliminary" election irrespective of party preference or endorsement, and voters vote for one. Then, the general election includes only the two candidates who received the most votes in the preliminary round, even if those two candidates have the same political party preference.

FairVote has been at the forefront of critical analysis of Top Two. In this Policy Perspective, we outline some of the issues with how Top Two operated in California in 2012. We then describe how the system would operate under a simple modification: a "Top Four" system in which four candidates advance to the general election instead of two, and in which the general election is conducted by ranked choice voting. The Top Four system appears to genuinely achieve the benefits that supporters of Top Two sought in a way that accommodates expanded voter choice and competition in the general election. We further note that concerns with Top Two regarding the First Amendment association rights of both candidates and political parties may be easily remedied by the inclusion of two party labels per candidate: one indicating party preference and one indicating any endorsements by political parties.