California’s Top-two Primary: A Successful Reform

“California’s Top-two Primary: A Successful Reform” by Charles Munger, Jr. – a USC Schwarzenegger Institute white paper

Charles T. Munger, Jr  assesses the changes wrought by the advent in 2012 of the top-two primary in three concurrent papers listed below. The author is the president of Californians to Defend the Open Primary, which has intervened to defend every legal challenge against the top-two primary since its inception, and who also played a significant role in its passage.

  1. PAPER I – reviews the history of recent primary election reform in California, problems of California’s election system before 2012 that the top-two is meant to address, what changes were made to address those problems by the passage of the top-two primary.
  2. PAPER II – examines the condition of the minor parties in California under the top-two: concerning their voter registration; whether the minor parties shall remain qualified for the ballot; whether there is a correlation between increases or decreases in a minor party’s voter registration, and whether that party runs or does not run candidates that appear on the general election ballot; and how much money is being spent by the minor parties. 
  3. PAPER III – presents a table of all the candidates elected in a same-party general election in California from 2012 through 2016, and shows how often the general election winner was the candidate who had trailed in the primary. It also tallies the amount of money spent in same-party general elections, as a measure of their competitiveness and interest. 

Key highlights of “California’s Top-two Primary: A Successful Reform”

  •  California’s top-two primary system is evaluated.  Claims made by advocates of the primary reform, as well as claims made by critics are evaluated with analysis, argument, data, and evidence.
  • The author concludes the top-two primary was a successful reform.  It introduced greater competition in elections, resulted in greater interest in elections, provided the opportunity for no-party preference and other voters to have a say, and led to general election winners who would have previously not advanced past the old partisan primary system.
  • The goals of the top-two primary reform are introduced, as is a history of the recent primary elections.  Criticisms of the previous separate partisan primary system are summarized, as are the goals of those who promoted the reform.  The author analyzes legislative and statewide elections in California since the creation of the top-two primary system.
  • The top-two primary system creates an opportunity for more voters to participate and vote for any candidate, including no-party preference voters.
  • The number of same-party general legislative elections in California is high.  These same-party elections have had significant impacts on the competitiveness of elections.
  • The sequence of two rounds has allowed for the candidate who would have lost a closed party primary to advance and win the general election.  In 34% of competitive same-party general elections, the winning candidate in the top-two primary would not have a partisan primary in the old primary system. The author argues this means the general electorate had more influence in choosing the legislative winner.
  • Minor or third parties in California have done as well before and after the implementation of the top-two primary.  Minor parties are not harmed by the top-two primary system.
  • The top-two primary has led to increased electoral competition. Under pre-reform partisan primaries, an average of 0.6 incumbents per year lost in primaries, while under the top-two, an average of 3.3 incumbents per year lost in same-party general elections, a factor of 5.6 more.
  • In California Assembly and California Senate elections under the top-two primary, almost all voters participate in same-party general elections.  In same-party general elections, 88% of voters who did not share the party of the candidates nevertheless voted in the legislative races while 95% voted in different-party general elections.  Similar results are shown for U.S. House elections.  This means that voters who do not share the candidates’ political party are influencing the outcome of general elections in California legislative districts. 
  • Same-party general elections attracted more attention and candidates in those races engaged in more campaign spending than different-party general elections.
  • In same-party elections, was the dominant major party in the district injured? The author shows that Democrat versus Democrat elections occur in overwhelmingly Democratic constituencies in which a Republican candidate in the old partisan primary system would not have been competitive; and that Republican versus Republican elections occur in overwhelming Republican constituencies in which a Democratic candidate in the old system would not have been competitive.  In 458 of 459 legislative elections held from 2012 to 2016, the general election winner reflected the partisanship of the constituency.