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California's New Top Two Primaries Explained

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Image Credit: DonkeyHotey/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The passage of Proposition 14 in 2010 changed the way primary elections work in California.

Previously, California had used a "closed" primary system, the object being for each party to nominate a single candidate to run in the general election. It was closed in the sense that only party members were allowed to help decide on their own nominee. So for key federal and state offices, voters would only see candidates from the party they had registered with.

 Further Reading
The New York Times: Will California's 'Top Two' Primary Work?
KCET: How Did a Conservative Finish as One of Top-Two Vote-Getters in the Liberal 36th Congressional District?
League of Women Voters: Voting in the Primary Election
Calif. Secretary of State: New Open Primary Info
National Conference of State Legislatures: State Primary Election Types
Center for Governmental Studies: Open Primaries and Top Two Elections

Voters who had not declared a party affiliation (formerly "decline-to-state" voters) were barred completely from participating in these party-specific elections. "Decline-to-state" ballots therefore omitted most state and federal contests and showed instead only the names of the candidates running for nonpartisan offices, such as county supervisor or district attorney, along with any ballot measures before the people.

It was only in the general election that all voters would choose from the same pool of candidates, and at this point they would pick the final winner.

How the New System Works
Under the current top two system, political parties are no longer responsible for nominating a candidate to run for state and Congressional offices in the general election. Instead, all candidates are lumped together and simply indicate a "party preference." The two with the most votes advance to the general. The top two candidates can even be from the same party, so it's now possible to receive a general election ballot with a choice of two Democrats, for instance, and no one else.

No Change to Presidential Primaries
The new system does not apply to presidential candidates or party central committee offices. These offices are still elected using the closed system. That means, in general, if you want to vote for a presidential candidate in a primary contest, you must be from the same party.

However, California introduced a "modified-closed" system in 2000 that loosened the restrictions a little. Parties may, at their discretion, open their primaries to voters who have not stated a party preference (now called "no party preference" voters). The Democratic and American Independent parties indicated they would do so for the June 5 primary.

No Winner Takes All in the Primary
Even if a candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, he or she cannot win outright in the primary. The top two candidates still advance to the general.

The State Superintendent of Public Instruction and candidates in certain special elections form the exception to this rule.

Write-In Candidates
Write-in candidates can still participate, but they are effectively barred from entering the general election directly. Write-ins, like everyone else, must enter during the primary and will only advance if they are one of the top two candidates.

A Change in Nomenclature
Before this year, elected offices in California were divided into two categories: partisan, or "party-nominated," and nonpartisan.

Under the new system, there are three classifications: party-nominated (for the president and central committees only), voter-nominated, and nonpartisan.

3 Types of Offices

Party-Nominated Voter-Nominated Nonpartisan (Local)
President U.S. Senator County Offices (incl. Judges, Supervisors, D.A.)
County Central Committees U.S. Representative City Offices (incl. Mayor, City Council)
  Governor Special District Offices
  Lt. Governor School District Offices
  Secretary of State Superintendent of Public Instruction
  State Treasurer  
  Controller  
  Insurance Commissioner  
  Board of Equalization  
  State Senator  
  Attorney General  
     

Pros and Cons of the Top Two Primary System
The top two primary system is intended to limit extreme partisanship by giving moderate candidates a boost. In a closed system, candidates only have to appeal to the party's base, making it advantageous for a Democrat to swing harder to the left, a Republican to the right. When voters can pick anyone from any party, candidates are forced to appeal to a much wider audience, or such is the reasoning.

Making candidates appeal to a wider audience could, however, have the perverse side effect of increasing the cost of campaigning and making them more beholden to special interests, argues Peter Schrag, former editorial page editor of the Sacramento Bee. Schrag was one of a panel of experts who offered their take on California's top two primary system to The New York Times before voters approved Prop 14.

Essentially, opponents argue that the new system will prevent third parties from ever appearing in a general election, since only two candidates can advance and they are likely to be either Democrat or Republican. Another complaint is that the system severely limits voters' choices in the general election, especially when the top two candidates are from the same party.

Primary Systems Used in Other States
California is not the only state with a top two primary system. Nebraska, Louisiana, and most recently Washington also have some version of the top two, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. And there are other systems in use today.

CLOSED PRIMARIES
In this system, only voters registered to a political party may vote for that party's nominee. Eleven states have closed primaries or caucuses.

OPEN PRIMARIES
Anyone may participate in any party's primary under this system. Voters are limited, however, in the sense that they must pick one ballot. A Republican ballot will contain only the Republican candidates. So a Democrat can vote for a Republican in a "crossover vote," but cannot also participate in the Democratic primary. Eleven states use this system.

TOP TWO PRIMARIES
In Nebraska, the top two system is used only for its nonpartisan legislature and for some statewide races. California, Louisiana, and Washington use it for state and Congressional races.

HYBRID
The vast majority of states use some combination of the open and closed primary systems. Some states, for instance, leave it to the parties to decide whether to allow crossover voting in their primaries.

Sources: League of Women Voters, California Office of the Secretary of State, National Conference of State Legislatures

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