California’s Stupid Top Two Primaries

Ballot BoxEd Kilgore is right to noted that here in California we have a really stupid primary process, Top Two Follies. Because of a stupid voter approved change in the California Constitution, there are no more party primaries. Everyone is just on the ballot and the two candidates who get the most votes run in the general election. Not surprisingly, this can lead to some very undemocratic results.

Kilgore points to two, but I think he’s wrong about one. Let’s talk about one where we came less than a percentage point away from a totally ridiculous result: House of Representatives District 31. In that race, 53.3% of the people voted for a Democratic candidate and only 46.7% of the people voted for a Republican candidate. But there were four Democrats running and only three Republicans. The winner was Republican Paul Chabot with 26.8% of the vote. Second place went to Democrat Pete Aguilar with 17.4%—barely beating Republican Lesli Gooch with 16.5% of the vote. If Aguilar had lost just one percentage point of his vote to either of the Democrats Joe Baca or Danny Tillman, the general election would have been between two Republicans, even though the people showing up in the general election would overwhelmingly prefer a Democrat.

In the other case, District 25, I think Kilgore is wrong. The only way a Democrat on the general election ballot had a chance in hell was if the demographics of the general election voters skewed far more to the left. The top two Republican candidates together got 57.7% of the vote. And there were two other Republicans with a total of 7.0% of the vote. Plus a libertarian with 1.8% of the vote and “independent” Michael Mussack, who sounded very conservative to me, who got 1.4% of the vote. All totaled, that is 67.9% of the vote going to conservatives. The two Democrats got a total of 32.2%. If there had only been one Democrat on the ballot, this might have ended in an anti-democratic situation, although at least the final election voters would have a party choice.

We already have a fairly undemocratic system with our First Past the Post voting. That’s what gives us our limited two-party system. But this “top two” primary system turns our elections here in California into First Past the Post on Steroids. Now the spoiler effect is even bigger than normal. And since older and more conservative voters are the ones most likely to show up at these off-year primaries (I saw an estimate than only 30% of registered voters were expected to actually vote), we are much more likely to end up with situations where a large majority of general election voters want to vote for a Democrat but simple can’t. This is nonsense.

It’s interesting that this new primary system was made law by a relatively small margin in the 2010 election primary. So the law itself came into effect because of the anti-democratic nature of our whole system where the vote is skewed toward those for whom voting is easiest: the rich and the retired. We really should get rid of this law. And I say this noting that sometimes it will work to the Democrats’ advantage. Even if it always worked to the Democrats’ advantage, I would be against it. Kilgore mentions what is more or less this kind of case in District 17. In that district there will be only two Democrats on the ballot in November. But this is a district that saw on 24% of the voters going for Republicans; 75.9% went for Democrats. So just as in District 31, the “top two” vote doesn’t skew anything any more than gerrymandering already does.

I think it is unforgivable the way the people of the United States have allowed our democracy to wither due to our lack of attention. Instead of doing things to make voting easier and for the process to be more democratic (for just one example, the alternative vote), we go the other way. This is how democracy dies.


Here are some districts which could have been problems: 15, 25, 31, 33, 45, and 48. Luckily none of them where. But there are lots of races that the general election voter has only one party to pick from. Even though that only happens when districts are really Democratic or Republican, I still think people should have a choice in the general election.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

7 thoughts on “California’s Stupid Top Two Primaries

  1. Interesting comment at [url=]Jonathan Bernstein’s blog[/url] today: "Top-two is a terrible idea, and it’s working out more or less the way I (and most party scholars) expected."

    He’s asking for voter attitudes, so you might want to post your comment at his site. Perhaps if enough of us complain it’ll eventually get noticed, and maybe even produce a change.

    I realize this is being hopelessly liberal, which is not a comfortable spot for me to be in, so I beg your indulgence.

    suggesting that political scientists did NOT recommend Top-2 primaries.

  2. @mike shupp – Yeah, I read Bernstein everyday. But since he moved to Bloomberg, I tend not to comment. The old Plain Blog About Politics was a nice place where liberals and conservatives interacted. On Bloomberg, it is more like the usual internet nonsense.

  3. @mike shupp – I went ahead and commented. I also fixed your comment. You can read about how to [url=]use BBCode[/url]–it’s very useful. Of course, I don’t mind fixing comments.

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