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Playing Games With California's Top-Two Primary

Mar 2, 2024

California’s top two primary system, while well-intentioned, is too easily manipulated.

Map of California cities using RCV

The March 4th primary ballot lets us select one of 27 candidates running for U.S. Senate (10 Republicans, 11 Democrats, and 6 other/none). The top two vote-getters in both U.S. and California Senate and House votes will go on to face each other in the November general election (The Presidential primary is still a party affair). Washington and Nebraska are the only other states to have this kind of top two primary, while Louisiana has its own unique variant.

Californians began voting this way after we approved Proposition 14 in 2010 over the objection of leaders of all political parties. Minor party leaders didn’t want to lose the clout that comes with a line on the November ballot. The major political parties feared interference from the opposition in choosing a candidate to represent their party.  But Gov. Schwarzenegger, nearing the end of his second term, was not beholden to party leaders. He promoted the top two primary as a way to reduce partisan division and promote centrist candidates: “We want to change the dysfunctional political system and we want to get rid of the paralysis and the partisan bickering.”

But this system can have unintended consequences. In State Senate District 4, a rural Central Valley district sprawling between the outskirts of Fresno to the outskirts of Bakersfield, six Republicans were on the 2018 primary ballot. They split their votes, allowing two Democrats to compete for this typically Republican seat on the November ballot.

It can also lead to political gamesmanship, as happened in then-Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom’s gubernatorial campaign in 2018. Newsom ran ostensible opposition ads linking Republican John Cox with Donald Trump in an apparent effort to spur Trump supporters to the polls. (In 2022 Democrats did this in several races to promote the weaker Trump-aligned candidates and it generally paid off.)  Here, though, Newsom apparently wanted to deny his Democratic rival, LA Mayor Antonio Villariagosa, the second spot on the November ballot. It worked.  While Diane Feinstein faced another Democrat for the U.S. Senate, it was Newsom vs. Cox for Governor.

And now it’s happening again, in the contentious battle between Adam Schiff, Katie Porter, and others for California’s open Senate seat. Schiff and his allies, aiming to pick his opponent in the general election, have spent millions strategically criticizing Steve Garvey, the leading Republican candidate, which raises his profile among Republican voters. If Garvey finishes second in the top two primary, that will knock Porter out of the race, giving Schiff an almost-certain win in November. The incentives are clear: candidates have every reason to manipulate top two and pick their general election opponent.

Let’s be clear: the motives behind the top two open primary were good, and in many ways, it is better than the system it replaced. But imagine if we advanced four or five candidates from the primary to the general election and used RCV to select the winner in each single-winner race? The much larger and more representative electorate in November would have more choice – and candidates would have no incentive to try to game the system and pick their one opponent.

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