Since 2012, California has held elections under a top-two jungle primary system. After the primary, the two candidates with the highest total of votes – regardless of party – advance to the general election. While a top-two race in a heavily Democratic or strongly Republican seat might lead to a general election with two candidates from the same party – something political analysts refer to as a “lockout” – top-two advocates argue voters can still make a meaningful choice.
In theory, if a party is locked out of the top two, their voters might still be a contested group of swing voters that bring a candidate back towards the center.
Turnout declines in lockout elections
Unfortunately, election results tell a different story. In lockout elections – which are increasingly common in California – turnout plummets. In 2012, 21.8% of voters in the 31st congressional district skipped a Congressional race between two Republicans; Barack Obama carried this seat with over 57% of the vote. In 2018, 11% of voters skipped the Senate race, a lockout between Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Kevin de Leon. And in 2022, 23.9% of voters skipped the all-Democrat State Senate race in the 4th district; Republican gubernatorial nominee Brian Dahle won nearly 60% of the vote here.
When an election is between two candidates of the same party, a substantial chunk of voters leave their ballots blank. And that’s a problem. While voters only vote for individual candidates, the general expectation in our democracy is that party affiliation is the clearest way to identify differences between candidates.
Depriving voters of that choice, especially when faith in democracy is on the decline, is wrong. But it’s even more indefensible when a majority of voters select candidates from one party, only for that party to not even make the general election.
Moderate candidates haven’t benefitted
In a race where both candidates are from the same party, the most partisan voters from either party simply won’t bother to research the difference between candidates. And who can blame them? The difference between any two Democrats or any two Republicans is likely to be relatively small. But even when the candidates are distinguishable, does it matter much?
In 2016’s Senate race, California voters were presented the choice between two meaningfully different Democrats – Loretta Sanchez, a moderate Democrat, and future Vice President Kamala Harris, a liberal. Harris, endorsed by the Democratic Party and most elected Democrats in the state, focused on appealing to the Democratic base. In contrast, Sanchez openly focused on winning Republican voters over. She appeared on conservative talk radio shows, courted endorsements from prominent Republicans, and received positive attention in conservative outlets like National Review. In other words, Sanchez ran the type of campaign the California jungle primary system was designed to benefit.
The result? Harris won by a 23-point landslide, and over 1.9 million Californians (nearly 14% of presidential election voters) skipped the election outright. According to exit polls, Harris won Democratic voters, who make up 50% of the electorate in California, by a 2:1 margin. Republican voters, who made up 19% of the electorate, supported Sanchez, but only by a 12-point margin. Two dozen counties, most of them Republican strongholds, saw 20% or more of voters ignore the race.
A poll conducted last year indicated that a general election between Reps. Katie Porter and Adam Schiff – something that appears likely, according to other polls – would see a majority of Republicans, 19% of the electorate, refuse to vote.
Third parties have vanished
Additionally, the top-two system has another flaw – or, as the two major parties might see, a benefit: the practical extinction of third-parties. From 1994 to 2010, third parties in California routinely received anywhere from 3.5% (1998) to 10% (2002) of the vote. In the last gubernatorial election before the implementation of the top-two system, three different third parties received over 1% of the vote.
Under top-two, third-parties have been a non-factor in California politics since the implementation of the jungle primary. In almost all elections, they are locked out in the primary. In the handful of cases they sneak through – usually when an incumbent lacks a challenge from a candidate in either major party – the candidate inevitably loses in a landslide. For voters unsatisfied with the two major parties, top-two deprives them of the ability to cast even a protest vote, one of the major ways third parties can influence the two major parties.
Alternative voting systems
However, electoral reform isn’t inherently bad. There are a number of promising reform possibilities that California could explore that would allow voters to have a meaningful choice in all elections.
In 2020, Alaska voters chose to replace their first-past-the-post system with a new ranked-choice voting system. In the primary, voters vote for one candidate; the top four candidates, regardless of party, advance to the general election, which is decided by ranked-choice voting. With a top-four system, every contested congressional and legislative race in California in 2022 would have had at least one candidate from each major party. While this system isn’t perfect – the winner of the state’s congressional special election was a Democrat, despite Republican candidates winning a majority of first-preference votes – it would be an improvement over California’s current system.
Another promising option is approval voting. Currently used in local elections in Fargo, North Dakota and St. Louis, Missouri, this system lets voters vote for as many candidates as they like, with the one who receives the most votes winning. Advocates argue this system would penalize polarizing candidates that run negative campaigns and encourage all candidates to run towards the center.
Either of these systems would offer the supposed benefits of top-two – more competitive elections, less partisan candidates, and tangible electoral incentives to candidates appealing to the center – all without depriving voters of a choice in which party governs them.