Recommended Reforms to California's Top Two

by Cameron Ferrante, Rob Richie // Published April 23, 2015

The "Top Two" primary system adopted in California in 2010 utilizes a two-step process: first, a "preliminary" election among all candidates seeking election, then the general election between the candidates with the most and second-most votes from the preliminary. Under this system, only the top two vote-getters in the primary are listed on the general election ballot, even if they align with the same party. This system has several flaws, including substantial restriction of voter choices based on the results of low turnout primaries as well as California's prohibition on write-in candidates in the general election. 

FairVote has provided critical analysis of California's Top Two system since its adoption. In prior analyses, FairVote has recommended the adoption of a Top Four Primary in place of California's current system. In this Policy Perspective, we describe way in which the California legislature may modify its current system to resolve many of the issues with the Top Two primary. First, we discuss statutory amendments which would incorporate ranked choice voting into the primary and general elections to increase voter choice and avoid unrepresentative outcomes and vote-splitting. Second, we describe a constitutional amendment which would allow California to use the Top Two election as a general election with a contingent runoff, similar to the current Louisiana election method. FairVote recommends each of these reforms as an effective means of resolving many of the issues found in California's Top Two primary system.