California’s Top-Two Primary System Defied Pundit Expectations

SACRAMENTO (CN)- Before results started trickling in from California’s primary election last week, cable news hosts and national media relentlessly primed viewers for the ensuing chaos about to be sparked by the state’s unusual voting process.

California’s primaries usually fly under the radar, yet this one attracted national media attention over speculation that the state’s top-two system would lock Democratic candidates out of several congressional runoffs and essentially end hope for a November “blue wave.”

The system, referred to as a blanket or jungle primary by many, advances the top two candidates regardless of party to the November ballot. Backers say it’s a refreshing nonpartisan way to conduct elections.

CNN warned that the system could “be a disaster” for both California Democrats and Republicans, while a Bloomberg News headline ranted “Happy Election Day, California! Your System is Still Terrible.”

But a funny thing happened the morning after the election: both major parties claimed victory.

Democratic candidates advanced in each of the seven Republican-held districts won by Hillary Clinton in 2016, and voters sent gubernatorial challenger Republican businessman John Cox through to November.

Democrats won’t be locked out of critical House races and Republican turnout should increase with a candidate at the top of the ballot.

California’s version hatched under Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who embraced the method as a way to interrupt partisanship in state politics. The Golden State’s last Republican governor said in 2010 the top-two would encourage lawmakers to break through “their ideological straight-jackets” and meet in the middle.

The Legislature placed the issue on the statewide ballot in 2010, and 54 percent of voters approved the switch to the top-two. The system was first used in 2011 and last week’s primary was the first with an open governor’s seat.

Republican strategist and author Tony Quinn says the top-two system worked just fine last week, despite the talking heads’ predictions to the contrary.

“It gave people a choice, it did not cut anybody out and you got the best candidates running off in the fall,” Quinn said.

Quinn adds that the major parties generally oppose the top-two system, because it allows candidates to take more moderate stances and stray from the party-line.

Yet critics say the top-two hasn’t resulted in more moderate candidates over the last eight years, and it certainly hasn’t led to an influx of third-party candidates making it to the November runoff.

The Democratic candidate, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, supports universal health care, strict gun control and the state’s pro-immigrant policies.

On the other hand, Cox has promised to immediately repeal the state’s sanctuary polices, wants to nix California’s landmark Environmental Quality Act and end current Gov. Jerry Brown’s recently passed transportation tax increase. The Illinois native has also been endorsed by President Donald Trump, who remains unpopular with Golden State voters.

Wesley Hussey, associate professor of government at California State University, Sacramento, says the top-two is devastating for third party candidates.

“It’s almost impossible for independent candidates in statewide races,” Hussey said. “Top-two is devastating to third parties; it precludes them from being on the ballot in the general election.”

Election results are still being finalized but it’s likely that only three of California’s 53 congressional districts races will feature an independent candidate come November.

As for statewide races, only independent insurance commissioner candidate Steve Poizner made it through the jungle primary. Poizner recently left the Republican party and was elected to the same position in 2006.

While this time around the system worked out for the major parties in the congressional and gubernatorial races, Hussey says California politicians should still be wary of it. There is still a very real chance that Republicans or Democrats could be locked out of future elections.

“Avoiding a scare doesn’t mean that the parties are happy with the system,” Hussey said.

It looks like the fledgling system is also gaining traction with voters.

A recent USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Time survey found that 50 percent of registered voters liked the top-two while a total of 90 percent said they prefer something other than California’s old primary system.

The more traditional “modified closed primary” required independent or no party reference voters to gain permission from the major parties to vote in their primaries and guaranteed that the major parties’ would have a candidate on the general election ballot.

California modeled its system after Washington state’s method for congressional and state-level elections.

Despite the recent nationwide media attention, Quinn feels other state legislatures won’t soon follow Washington and California’s lead and switch to the top-two.

“Politicians don’t like it, this thing was not something the lawmakers dreamed up,” Quinn said. “It’s not going to catch fire across the country.”

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