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Explaining California's Open Primary

New Open Primary Voting System
California's Open Primary
Guests: Deborah Seiler, San Diego County Registrar of Voters Carl Luna, professor, San Diego Mesa College

How The Open Primary Works

Aside from presidential candidates, all candidates running, regardless of their party preference, will appear on a single combined ballot, and voters can vote for any candidate from any political party.

Only the two candidates who receive the highest and second-highest number of votes in the primary will appear on the ballot as candidates in the General Election in November.

The “Top-Two Primary Act” changes the way elections are conducted for all statewide offices including:

--Governor, Lt. Governor, Secretary of State, State Treasurer

--Controller, Insurance Commissioner, Board of Equalization, U.S. Representatives

--State Senator, State Assembly, U.S. Senator, Attorney General

The “Top-Two Primary Act” would not affect the election of president and party-nominated committees. Non-partisan offices such as judges, schools, special districts, municipalities and the superintendent of public instruction would remain open to all eligible voters.

California voters will see a different looking ballot when they head to the voting booths this June 5.

They will be voting in an open primary for the first time, which means Democrats can vote for Republicans and Republicans can vote for Democrats.


Deborah Seiler, the San Diego County Registrar of Voters, explained on KPBS Television’s “Evening Edition” how the new open primary will change what voters see in the next election.

“Down on the ballot they’ll see what are now called voter nominated offices,” she said. “And these are congressional offices, state, legislative offices. Where these used to be restricted to that voter’s political party, now they will be a combination of all the candidates running in that primary election, which will include Democrats and Republicans.”

California voters approved an open primary in 2010.

Carl Luna, a professor at San Diego Mesa College, said the hope is that the new way of voting will increase voter turnout and will lead to election of more moderate candidates.

“Since anybody can vote for anybody, you might have to appeal more toward moderate candidates, toward independents,” he said. “So you get two Democrats who win in one district, they go to the general election and the Democrat that can get Independents and even moderate Republicans to vote for them has a better chance to win.”


That scenario could play out in the 52nd Congressional District, where two Democrats are running.

This move toward moderation means governing bodies who could get more done, Luna said. He said the closed primary system of the past has meant voters elect polarized candidates—either very liberal or very conservative—who can’t agree on much once they reach the legislature.

“The American system of government is based on consensus,” he said. “For anything to get done, people have to agree somewhere in the middle.”

Seiler said nonpartisan contests, like those for county Board of Supervisor seats, will continue to be run in the same way. In those, a candidate could win outright if he or she gets 50 percent plus one vote.

But under the new open primary system for partisan races, she said the top two candidates with the most votes go to the general election in November. That’s true even if one candidate has already secured more than 50 percent of the vote in the primary.

Seiler said that in California’s presidential primary, also on June 5, the Democratic and Independent parties have opened their primaries to voters who declined to state a party affiliation. That means these “decline to state” voters can ask for Democrat or Independent party ballots, but not Republican ballots.

On Tuesday, Michigan held its “crossover primary,” where registered Democrats are allowed to vote in the Republican presidential primary. Republican front-runner Mitt Romney complained that the campaign of his rival, Rick Santorum, was making phone calls to Democrats to ask them to vote against Romney in the Republican race.