On Tuesday, June 6, California held its first Top Two primary. Approved in 2010 by referendum, the Top Two primary system is a non-partisan selection of the “top two” candidates for a position. These top two candidates will then face off in the November election. The Top Two Primary applies to all elected positions in California except political party positions. Also excepted are the positions
of United States President and Vice-President which are still subject t to
partisan primaries. All other elected positions from US Senator to California State positions to local positions are subject to the Top Two Primary system.
Over the years California has transitioned from a totally closed primary, to a completely open primary, and more recently, a modified closed primary system. Each of these types of primaries were preliminary selection elections for partisan
candidates. They differed only in who could vote in them.
In 2010 at the instigation of then-Governor Schwarzenegger, the Top Two primary system was approved in a referendum. The intent was to refocus primaries towards moderation. Under the prior system candidates tended to move to the extremes in their parties to win voters. It also was intended to encourage the growing numbers of non-aligned registered voters to be more engaged in the process. Yesterday was its first implementation in California. Washington State also uses the Top Two primary system.
How does it work? Any potential candidate, after meeting some basic filing requirements, can have their name listed on the primary ballot for a position. If a candidate is registered with a particular party, Democrat, Republican, Conservative, etc., that will be included with their name on the primary ballot. Unaffiliated candidates will have nothing beside their name. Everyone who is registered to vote in California, regardless of affiliation or lack thereof, may vote in these Top Two primaries. At the end of the day, the” top two” vote getters will be contestants in the November election.
There are some interesting aspects to this system. One of them is that the top two finalists could very well be from the same party. In this case, the November fight would be intraparty, leaving voters from the other party or parties to select between them. Another interesting aspect is that even if one primary candidate receives more than 50% of the total vote, the Top Two finishers will still be on the November ballot.
Yesterday’s results do not give any clear indications of whether this new form of primary will meet its objectives. Whether the winning Top Two were more moderate overall will need to be avaluated in coming days. However,
a record was set in the June 6 California primary. That was its record low turnout – just over 15%.