California’s experiment with a “top-two” primary system has been in place for the past three election cycles, and the results are in.
The top-two system has increased barriers to diverse voices historically provided by the state’s smaller ballot-qualified parties. The result is a narrower range of public policy options and less voter choice – contrary to how the top-two primary system was promoted when narrowly approved by voters in 2010 through Proposition 14. Under top two, party primaries are eliminated, and all candidates from all parties and independents run against each other. Then only the top two vote-getters appear on the November ballot.
From 1992 to 2010, the Green, Libertarian, Peace and Freedom, and American Independent parties averaged 127 primary ballot candidates each election year combined. In 2012 – the first year of the new system – only 17 candidates from smaller parties qualified for state legislative and congressional races, the fewest since 1966, when only Democrats and Republicans were on the ballot. By 2016 only nine qualified for the ballot for Legislature and Congress, and four for U.S. Senate.
For smaller parties, the introduction of the top-two system significantly increased the number of petition signatures required to avoid costly filing fees. That’s only to get on the ballot during the “jungle primary,” which has lower voter turnout and less media coverage. Before top two, every ballot-qualified party’s nominee advanced to the general election.
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Previously, smaller party candidates almost exclusively gathered the necessary signatures to avoid paying the fee, while most Democrats and Republicans paid it. In effect, the top-two system eliminates voices that can’t pay to play – even if voters previously supported them.
Exacerbating matters, the statewide Voter Information Guide candidate statement now costs more than double the filing fee – meaning far fewer words than most smaller-party candidates can afford – and less information to voters.
Top-two was originally placed on the ballot without analysis or public hearings, as part of a 3 a.m. state budget deal. The Legislature should conduct hearings today on the top-two system and consider the following reforms:
▪ Lower the signature-in-lieu requirement filing fee.
▪ Lower the per-word fee and/or provide a minimum number at minimal cost for the paper version of county and statewide voter guides.
▪ Give all ballot-qualified candidates a full candidate statement at minimal cost on the web version of county and state voter guides.
▪ Restore the right to general election write-in candidacies.
The top-two system isn’t used for presidential elections, because candidates who appear on the November ballot are determined by national party conventions, not primary elections. Therefore, there will be more general election choice in California for president than any other state or federal office.
In November, many Bernie Sanders supporters may vote for presumptive Green Party nominee Jill Stein, if Hillary Clinton wins the Democratic nomination; while many Republicans may prefer Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson to Donald Trump. Under a presidential top-two, neither Stein nor Johnson would be on the November ballot.
One reason California has so many voters not aligned with any party, is that single-seat, winner-take-all elections generally produce two dominant parties. But the two major parties do not represent the full electorate. Top-two simply funnels independents into voting for Democrats and Republicans, while eliminating other voices.
The answer is a system that allows all voters to choose a candidate who represents their views, and that gives many parties a real chance at winning seats. To truly represent the electorate, we need a system of multiseat districts with proportional representation in the Legislature, and ranked-choice voting for single-seat statewide offices.
Our current system is incapable of representing the diversity of voters in California. A more representative system needs to take its place.
Michael Feinstein is the spokesman for the Green Party of California and former mayor of Santa Monica. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.