Top Two

When California’s returns–which often come in very slowly–begin to be reported tomorrow, it will be important to understand the state’s Top Two primary system, in which all candidates regardless of partisan identification run on the same primary ballot with the Top Two candidates–regardless of party or percentage of the vote–going on to the general election in November. The system is different from Louisiana’s “jungle primary” insofar as 50% of the vote doesn’t earn a candidate a pass from a second electoral contest. It was instituted via a 2010 ballot initiative, but has only been used in 2012.

So many of today’s California primaries will really just be general election trial heats. But in contests with large fields, lots could happen.

The classic example is CA-33, the U.S. House seat being vacated by long-time incumbent Henry Waxman. Eighteen candidates are running in the primary, including 10 Democrats, 5 Republicans and 3 independents. Any number of pairs of Democrats could make the cut for the general election (the two best-positioned Democrats are 2013 LA Mayoral finalist Wendy Greuel, state senator Ted Lieu), but so, too, could Republican Elan Carr or indie Marianne Williamson.

With most of the statewide contests being semi-snoozers, and in the absence of any big statewide ballot initiatives (a very unusual occurrence), turnout is expected to fall below 30%, with close to two-thirds of voters casting ballots by mail. So today’s electorate is likely to be more conservative and Republican than November’s, and a lot less numerous.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.