The Unintended Consequences of CA’s Top Two Primary System

California’s new “top-two” primary system has some Golden State Democrats worried. Though they’re confident about holding onto the seat being vacated by departing U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer in 2016, Democrats may come to rue the new set-up, which allows the two top vote-getters to advance to the general election, regardless of party affiliation. In a low-turnout primary crowded with vote-splitting Democratic candidates, it’s not out of the question that two Republicans could lead the field. That almost happened in one of last year’s statewide primaries.

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In the June 2014 primary for state controller, two Republicans squared off against three Democrats and a Green Party candidate. Republican David Evans, an unknown accountant from Central California, spent just $600 on the race but managed to garner 850,109 votes thanks to his bare-bones ballot statement—“Most qualified for Controller”—and the clever ballot designation he put after his name: “Chief Financial Officer.” Fresno mayor Ashley Swearengin (a Republican) eventually won the primary, but Evans held the second-place spot for several days while votes were counted—putting him ahead of the two leading Democrats—until he was finally edged out. He finished fourth, with less than one percentage point separating him from the second-place finisher, Democrat Betty Yee. If Evans had held on, two Republicans would have competed in the general election, ensuring the first statewide GOP victory in almost a decade. Yee went on to beat Swearengin in November.

For Democrats, it was an uncomfortably close call. Democratic political consultant Garry South summarized the implications: “One of the lessons we’ve learned in ’12, and now in ’14, is that in a very low turnout primary, which this was, with a disproportionate share of Republicans turning out, Democrats have to be careful they don’t overload the ballot with candidates splitting too few Democratic voters.” These are the conditions of almost every California primary, however.

Reformers had hoped that the top-two primary structure would put more moderates on the general election ballot. It’s not yet clear that this is occurring. What’s certain is that the system is proving problematic for California’s Democrats, who have long dominated statewide offices. The reasons are two-fold. First, as South describes, with lower turnouts and higher percentages of Republicans participating, primaries are more challenging for California Democrats. Total voter participation figures still favor Democrats in these races, but it’s a much closer split than in the general election. Second, with a deeper bench of potential candidates, California Democrats have too many contenders for a limited number of statewide offices.

Even in traditional primaries, operatives of both parties have long practiced the art of “clearing the field” to limit the number of candidates on the ballot. The top-two primary amplifies the importance of field-clearing. Paradoxically, the new system was meant to weaken the political parties’ sway over the primary process, but it may wind up strengthening it. A reform intended to increase options for voters might actually reduce them.

The 2016 Senate primary is already exposing potential cleavages on the Democratic side. The first Democrat to declare for the seat being vacated by Boxer is state attorney general Kamala Harris, a woman of Jamaican-American and Indian descent. But discontent is mounting among Latino Democrats. The California Latino Legislative Caucus recently made a public call for a Latino to run for the Senate seat. Former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa contemplated a run but bowed out this week. Latino attentions have shifted to Orange County congresswoman Loretta Sanchez and Los Angeles congressman Xavier Becerra.

As Los Angeles Times Sacramento columnist George Skelton recently wrote, “Latinos feel insulted by blacks. Angelenos are suspicious of San Franciscans. Democrats are squabbling. It’s inevitable. It’s the unintended consequence of a one-party dominated state.” And the unintended consequence of a top-two primary system may well be to exacerbate these conflicts.


  1. askeptic says

    If the GOP is to take advantage of the Progs tendency to “eat its own”, it must start developing state-wide name-recognition for its bench so that two “good” candidates can be entered into those state-wide races with the objective of each just finishing ahead of the Dem pack in the Primary – they can fight amongst themselves in the General.
    Unfortunately, the GOP Powers-That-Be seem to be more interested in traditional “king-making” within the Party than winning elections – which has gotten us to our current sorry state.

  2. I’m sure a lot of those voted for betty Yee in the primary & final are illegals, non citizens, dead folks. They got paid by a little money, cigaret or free meals, promise amnesty to by votes. Also voted by mails are easy to cheat, they only counted votes after election and no time to verify voters are US citizens & nobody find out about it. Rampant voter FRAUDS in Mexifornia, blue States are easy without any penalty if vote for democrat. Librats cheating voter frauds in red States too but it’s a little harder to cheat than before. No ID require to vote, early voting & 3 days after election still can vote by mails is a final nail put in coffin of GOP. GOP will never control CA again if they don’t take care of voter fraud problems & if they don’t push “3 days after election new law” in the national for debate. After election day commie librat politician cheaters made sure to send enough vote to win the last election if they fell behind a few percent.

  3. I hated to live in the corruption socialist Taxifornia but I don’t want to give up the most beautiful weather, landscaping & treasures, oil fields of our nation to invaders & commie librats. This state controlled by commie Unions who bribed to librat politicians.

  4. Gotta Gedada Displace says

    Any damaging blowback to the greedy sociopathic Demos who inflicted “Top Two” on California “couldn’t happen to nicer folks”, but I think it would be more productive to focus on repealing that abomination than rejoicing in (only occasional) blowback. A previous post here highlighted a subtle advantage of lower turnout lowering the entry threshold in future elections – was that for candidates or propositions? I hope the latter, so a correcting repeal has an easy(er) ballot entry!

  5. Weedpuller says

    The eternal search for no conflict solutions by the “moderate” pipe-dreamers continues.
    It is hardly less than the utopian mirage held by the ultimate socialists.

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