Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live


California's Open Primaries May Not Shake State

At a San Diego polling place on Tuesday.
Gregory Bull
At a San Diego polling place on Tuesday.

Californians this week voted overwhelmingly to jettison their traditional party primary system, opening the early contests to all registered voters and allowing the top two vote getters in every race -- no matter their party affiliations -- to advance to the November general election.

The change, known as Proposition 14, had been promoted as a way to encourage the election of more moderate candidates in a state famously hamstrung by partisanship. Its biggest booster was Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Many election experts say, however, that the so-called top-two measure's overall effect is likely to be modest, with the exception of its impact on third-party candidates. They also say the goal of a more centrist, less partisan state legislature is likely to remain elusive -- as it has been in Louisiana and Washington state, which have similar primary rules.


"This is a tremor, not an earthquake," says Bob Stern, president of the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies and an expert on California political reform. "It will have a slight impact on elections."

Campaigning costs are likely to increase for legislative candidates who will have to reach beyond their party's traditional base, which includes voters who are typically the most inclined to participate in primaries. And members of the same party could emerge from primary contests to compete against each other in the fall.

But Joe Mathews of the New America Foundation in Los Angeles says that the new rules are far less groundbreaking than some have portrayed. The state, after all, already allows independent voters to request ballots to vote in Republican or Democratic primaries.

"It's a very minor thing," says Mathews, co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We can Fix It.

"If this is a revolution," Mathews says, "the definition of revolution has been greatly reduced."


Third-Party Wipeout?

Third-party members may beg to differ.

Though the new top-two rules, which go into effect in 2011, may not fundamentally change the type of candidates who will emerge as general election competitors, they do dramatically alter ballot access for third-party candidates.

"I'd say this is extinction for third parties," says Richard Winger, editor of Ballot Access News, a 25-year-old publication focused on election law and political parties.

To advance to a general election contest, third-party candidates will now have to compete against usually better organized and funded Democrats and Republicans in the wide-open primary contests -- matchups in which they are highly unlikely to finish in the top two.

And the new measure does not allow write-in candidates.

"I'm predicting that, excluding the presidential race, we'll have a November ballot in 2012 that has nothing but Democrats or Republicans on it," says Winger, who, using historical voter data, calculates that to advance to a general election a candidate must garner on average 30 percent of the primary vote.

He predicts Proposition 14-related court challenges, as have Democratic and Republican leaders.

Pros And Cons

Proposition 14 has, indeed, inspired mixed feelings -- even among experts like Stern.

"I've been voting for about 45 years, and this is the first time I can remember that I couldn’t decide how to vote on a proposition I knew a lot about," he said.

After ticking through the pros and cons, he decided to vote for the measure.

The pros? "I want every vote to count," Stern says, "and right now there is very little incentive for registered independents to vote in primaries because they have to request a Democratic or Republican ballot."

"Now, everybody gets the same ballot, and they can vote for anyone they want," he says.

The cons? "It's going to increase costs, and, because of that, it could increase the influence of special interests," he says. "And it's going to hurt third parties -- they will not move on to the general election."

"Third parties have a legitimate claim that they'll be wiped off the map," Stern says.

More moderate Democrats could emerge in the Legislature as a result of the change, but not more moderate Republicans, he predicts. Only 31 percent of voters in California are registered as Republican.

If the new rules had been in effect before Tuesday's primary, two candidates of the same party would have advanced in eight of the 100 legislative races in the state. Six of those races -- including one with no GOP contender -- involve Democratic candidates and two involve Republican candidates in districts where there were no Democratic contenders. Three of the state's congressional races would have seen Republicans advance as candidates in two races, Democrats in the third.

Statewide contests, waged largely on television, are already historically expensive. That will not change, say Stern and Mathews.

Incremental, But Still A Change

Mathews says he views Proposition 14 as "the last gasp of this view that we can go back to a beautiful, postwar time when we had parties that weren't particularly ideological."

"Things then were simpler and we've become much more partisan," he says. "I don't think we know how to solve that."

Mathews, who voted against the measure, advocates more dramatic changes in how his state votes -- from multimember regional congressional districts to adding some proportional representation into the mix.

One fundamental reason the measure won't dramatically change how politics is done in the state: Much of what happens in the state capital is driven by the anti-tax 1978 Proposition 13, which requires a two-thirds majority in the state Legislature to pass any new taxes.

"We're ruled by ghosts," Mathews says of the measure. Others, including Stern, say, however, that if put to voters again today, the controversial supermajority measure would still pass.

Proposition 14 will not exorcise those ghosts of the past. It seems unlikely to significantly change the usual suspects Californians will see on their general election ballots in coming years. And ntionally, while there are some stirrings to follow California's example, there's as of yet no broad movement in that direction.

But it is something, Stern says -- even if simply an incentive for independent voters to participate in primaries, and a path for a modest increase in moderate Democrats plying the Statehouse hallways.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit