News Analysis: Ten years later, California's 'top two' primary isn't always what it seems

La Habra Heights, CA - June 07: A voter exits after casting their ballot in the California primary at The Park in La Habra Heights Tuesday, June 7, 2022. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
A voter exits after casting their ballot in the California primary at the Park in La Habra Heights on June 7, 2022. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

California's primary election won't be remembered for what happened in a sprawling state Senate district that stretches from Lake Tahoe to Death Valley. But maybe it should.

After all, the one sure thing in the election that ended Tuesday was supposed to be that Republicans win elections in California's 4th Senate District. The region backed former President Trump twice along with an array of Republicans in national and statewide races stretching back to at least 2010.

But early election results have produced a surprise. Two Democrats appear poised to advance to the Nov. 8 ballot, the result of a six-person field of GOP candidates thinly spreading out the votes and California's top-two primary system that made its debut in 2012.

Whether the primary's rules have made an improvement or impediment for voters has been debated, almost nonstop, for a decade. Some of the most alluring promises made 10 years ago — that pragmatic candidates would prevail over partisans, for example — have failed to materialize.

"There was a laundry list of arguments that were made," said Paul Mitchell, one of the state's most prominent political data analysts. "But the record doesn't line up with what the advocates promised."

California's top-two primary removed the partisan barriers to participation, instead offering every voter the same multiparty list of candidates. In turn, the November election became the equivalent of a championship round between the two highest-scoring hopefuls from June.

"Proposition 14 will open up primary elections," backers of the primary rules wrote in the state election guide the year the proposal was ratified by voters. "It will reduce the gridlock by electing the best candidates."

A decade's worth of data aren't enough to make a judgment, said Steve Peace, a former Democratic state legislator who become a champion of independent voters and was an architect of the top-two primary.

"Ten years is overnight," he said. "You have to treat this like it’s an investment."

Even so, the change has not inspired California voters to show up for primary elections. Only two California primary elections since 1998 have seen a turnout of registered voters above 50%, and those were races for president, in 2000 and 2008. Otherwise, the last time a majority of registered voters cast ballots in a primary was 1982.

Since 2012, when the top-two rules took effect, participation in primaries has averaged just 37.6% of registered voters. Tuesday's turnout won't be clear for a few weeks but might be below the average.

"I think the intent for the top-two was good," said Kim Alexander, president of the nonpartisan California Voter Foundation. "But I think it's a little too clever. It's expecting more from the voters than is realistic."

The promises made by supporters of the top-two primary largely fell into one of three categories: increased participation by the state's growing number of independent voters, a decrease in the number of ultrapartisans elected to office and more competitive races for seats in the California Legislature and Congress.

"In order to change government we need to change the kind of people we send to the Capitol to represent us," backers wrote in the 2010 voter guide in favor of Proposition 14.

But the results from a decade of primary elections seem thin — especially when considering the promise that the election rules would inspire more participation by California's independent voters, those registered as having "no party preference." Under the traditional "closed primary" system, political parties used to often exclude independent voters from their state and congressional primaries. In California races, Proposition 14 made a voter's affiliation irrelevant.

And yet, independent voters haven't rushed in to cast ballots.

Research compiled by Political Data Inc., a campaign consulting firm, shows a persistent gap in primary election turnout between voters registered with political parties and those who are unaffiliated. In 2010, just before the arrival of the top-two primary, turnout by independent voters trailed that of partisans by 17 percentage points.

The gap narrowed slightly for a few years but by 2018 stood at 18 percentage points, largely back where things started.

On the second promise — an expectation that the top-two primary would boost moderate, centrist candidates — it's unclear how many voters would even want that outcome in the current political environment, much less whether they would know how to make it happen.

While Proposition 14 was the product of late-night deal making in Sacramento to pass a state budget in 2009, Peace and others had drafted versions of the new primary rules as far back as 2006, a political period in which then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger promised the dawn of a "post-partisan" era of politics that valued pragmatism and common ground.

By 2012, when the new primary rules took effect, partisanship was on the rise. The tea party's lurch to the right was followed by the liberal infighting of the 2016 election and the clash of both movements in the bitter acrimony sparked by the election of Trump.

"The expectations were that the top-two system would lead to moderation," said Sara Sadhwani, a Pomona College professor of political science. "But we couldn’t clearly foresee then the hyperpartisan nature of national politics."

Independent voters, misidentified by California elections officials as having "no party preference," often do have a preference and stick with it. Recent polling by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California found only 12% of unaffiliated voters said they don't lean toward either of the two major parties. Of those that do have a preference, 52% of independents said they generally side with Democrats.

"There’s always been a very idealized effort to remove parties from politics," said Eric McGhee, a PPIC senior fellow. "But that's just not how mass democracies work."

Nor has the top-two primary changed the fundamental way that candidates win elections.

Should the Sierra Nevada state Senate race end up with two Democrats — labor leader Tim Robertson and school administrator Marie Alvarado-Gil — it's likely that most of the region's Republicans will skip the race in November. Same-party runoffs on the fall ballot have not produced elections in which candidates build broad coalitions. Instead, the campaigns routinely look to elevate minor differences between the two hopefuls, a strategy frequently financed by powerful niche interest groups.

"These top-two races and the runoffs might become elections about small, small issues," Democratic campaign consultant Andrew Acosta said. "It might not be some lofty disagreement."

In some cases, the differences can become personal. Sadhwani's research on a subset of November same-party races found voters focusing on racial identity, a lens through which divisions can emerge.

"It doesn’t necessarily lead to moderation" in the winner's political positions, she said of the top-two primary. "It leads to supporting group-based identities."

A decade's worth of California's top-two primaries have produced other changes too.

Minor political parties have all but disappeared from general elections, unable to muster the resources to run large, professional campaigns that can compete with Democrats and Republicans. Independent candidates have fared no better — only one "no party preference" candidate has won a seat in the Legislature and did so largely because he was the incumbent and a former Republican leader of the Assembly.

For Peace, the critiques miss the point. He argues that smaller electorates are better than disengaged electorates sorting through a predictable list of candidates. Still, he said, the top-two primary probably should have been a "top four," or some other number of candidates that would keep voters from being stuck with a binary choice.

"There’s no such thing as a perfect system," he said. "Some of this, you’ve just got to take it in bites."

Peace said supporters of open primaries are at work on a new version, though the hurdles for change — another ballot measure and one that is subject to the moneyed interests of politics — seem high.

And the efficacy of election reforms like the top-two primary is difficult to measure, even after 10 years and more than 900 state, congressional and legislative races run under its rules. The ultimate test is whether voters feel their interests are well represented.

"It’s easy to fill out a ballot," said Alexander, of the California Voter Foundation. "But to make informed choices is a lot of work."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.