[EM] How would you fix California's top two primary?

Erik Moeller eloquence at gmail.com
Tue Jan 10 06:03:04 PST 2017

Since a 2010 ballot initiative [1], California uses a nonpartisan
blanket primary for non-presidential elections. This means that
candidates from all parties and independent ones run against each
other in a primary round, and the top two advance to the general

Multiple candidates from the _same_ party can run in the primary,
meaning that you may have vote splitting effects. Frequently, the top
two general election candidates are from the same party. This is by
design, though it remains to be seen how voters would respond to e.g.,
two gubernatorial choices from the same party. You can see some
example results here:


An interesting effect you can see here is the large number of
candidates who make it to the general election on a fraction of
write-in votes. Some of these districts would likely have been
uncontested in prior elections. For example, Angela Rupert from
District 46 got 131 (!) write-in votes, and managed to get 43.9% /
60,658 votes in the general. Quite a jump!

There's a large turnout gap between primary and general, and the
electorate is different. [2] As a consequence, small parties have
generally feared a loss of visibility, and opposed such measures in
the states where they have been proposed. The change certainly hasn't
helped them in California so far -- only the Libertarians made a small
showing in the 2016 elections, without any seats.

Practical questions for this group:
- Do you think this system would benefit from iterative improvements?
- If so, what would those changes look like?

It almost goes without saying that I think proportional representation
voting is the most desirable long term change. But if there are
smaller changes that would improve this system in the near term, CA
may be a viable target for reform, by law or by ballot initiative.

Personally, I think the vote splitting and spoiler effects in the
primary stage are problematic, and having candidates from the same
party in the general is undesirable. The use of fractions of write-in
votes also seems hackish and suggests ballot access problems in the
primary stage. I can imagine multiple ways to address this, but I'd be
curious what this group thinks.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/California_Proposition_14_(2010)
[2] http://www.ppic.org/content/pubs/report/R_514EMR.pdf

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