California Elections: The Top-Two in Review

California’s experiment with the top-two election system has gotten some attention at this blog. So I’m pleased to report that the California Journal of Politics and Policy has devoted an entire ungated issue to this reform. Mischiefs of Faction has additionally invited the academic contributors to this issue to write some guest posts describing their research, and we’ll be posting those in the coming days.

To quickly review, the top-two, passed by California voters in 2010 and operating in elections since 2012, creates a two-stage election system that replaces the usual primary-then-general system the state used to have. In the preliminary election (ostensibly a primary), voters may pick from any candidates of any party for each office, regardless of their party registration. The top two vote-getters from that election then go to a November runoff election, even if those candidates are of the same political party.

The idea behind this reform is that it would weaken party ties and allow for the election of moderate officeholders. Being able to choose from candidates across all parties theoretically encourages moderate voters to participate in the preliminary election. And the prospect of two Democrats competing in a runoff in San Francisco, or two Republicans going at it in Orange County, potentially creates a situation in which the more moderate candidate prevails by winning over moderate members of her own party along with independents and members of the minority party. At least in theory, this system gives moderates somewhat of an advantage and encourages them to run for office.

The stakes for this reform are big. If it can moderate the most polarized state legislature in the country, perhaps it points a way forward for reformers across the country. Perhaps California will have cracked the code for turning back extreme partisanship. On the other hand, if the parties continue to nominate extremists even in a primary system designed to prevent that, and if polarization continues unabated, that’s very informative about the strategic and innovative nature of parties. It would tell us that tinkering with election laws doesn’t really change what parties are, and it would remind us that parties are very creative when it comes to surmounting institutional obstacles to get the sort of behavior they want out of elected officials. To sum up, either you can reform away polarization or you can’t. Either way, the consequences are profound.

The findings, as we’ll see, are rather mixed, and what evidence we have that the top-two system has changed politics is pretty modest, at best. Yet as the studies note, it is still early; the new system may be encouraging a new type of candidate to run for office, but it’s just to soon to discern the effects of that. Nonetheless, the range of studies, looking at voter behavior and legislative voting patterns, provides a fascinating early look at a dramatic party reform. Whether the reform works or not, we’ll need to pay attention to the results.

At any rate, I encourage you to check out the issue, and watch this space in the coming days for some thoughtful posts by the authors.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Seth Masket

Seth Masket is an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver.