If California’s thorny elections process already had you in a bit of a tizzy, this year’s primary could be a bit of a doozy.

On top of sorting through the inevitably hefty batch of candidates and confounding propositions, voters will now have the added challenge of deciphering a brand new set of rules.

The new system, dubbed the “top-two or “open” primary, makes its debut in California’s statewide primary on June 5. It’s the result of Proposition 14 – the California Top Two Primaries Act – a measure approved by voters in 2010.

And as almost always happens when the rules of the game change, the new format is nearly guaranteed to cause a whole mess of confusion.

So let’s get right down to the nitty gritty:

Out with the old …

Until now, California’s statewide primary elections were considered “closed,” meaning you could only vote for candidates in your own political party (with the exception of non-partisan offices like county and education officials). So, for instance, if you were a Democrat, your ballot would only list Democratic candidates for national offices, or state senate, or governor or whatever other political races were happening in that particular election. Independent voters who declined to state a party preference were allowed vote in the general election, but could only participate in the presidential primary elections of the  Democratic and American Independent Parties (not the other four “qualified” political parties).

California’s six “qualified” political parties include:

  • DEM = Democratic Party
  • REP = Republican Party
  • AI = American Independent Party
  • AE = Americans Elect Party
  • GRN = Green Party
  • LIB = Libertarian Party
  • PF = Peace & Freedom Party

The candidate with the most votes from each party then advanced to the general election, where he/she would face top candidates from all the other parties. For each political contest, every party participating in the primary election would be guaranteed a spot in the November general election.

For any given race, the process would generally look something like this:

And in with the new …

CA Legislative Analyst’s Office

With California’s new “top two primary” system, political party affiliation is no longer a factor in choosing candidates. That’s because every candidate from every party is lumped together in one big political crock pot. And for most state races, any voter registered with any party can vote for any candidate from any party. Even if you’re not a registered party member, you can still vote for anyone you want.

The two candidates – from any party – with the most votes in the primary face then each other in a runoff in the November general election.

Part of a sample ballot (California Legislative Analyst’s Office)

These new rules apply to all legislative and state races (see the list above). They DO NOT, however, apply to the race for president (if you’re a Dem, for instance, Barack Obama will still be your only choice).

So, for some primary races this year, you may notice a surprisingly long list of candidates on your ballot. And that’s because you’re going to see the names of everyone from every party who’s running for that particular office.

For instance:

Let’s say, hypothetically that two Republicans, two Democrats, and one Libertarian are all running in the primary election for an open U.S. House of Representatives seat in your district. It used to be that you could only choose the primary candidates in your own party. But no longer! Now you can choose anyone you want. So, if you’re a Democrat, you can choose to cross party lines and vote for one of the Republican candidates or for the Libertarian. And no matter how many different candidates from different parties are in the primary race, there will only be two candidates in the general election. Guaranteed.

The process for any given race will generally look something like this:

One of the interesting potential outcomes of this new system is that some primary races could result in two candidates from the same party facing each other in the general election (if they respectively get the first and second most votes in the primary). So for any given race in the November election, there could conceivably be a Democrat facing another Democrat; a Republican facing another Republican; a Green facing another Green; yadda, yadda … you get the point.

That also means that candidates cannot participate in the general election unless they are among the top two vote-getters in the primary. Unlike the old system, this new rule eliminates the possibility of adding on write-in candidates in the general election. The exception is U.S. President election: write-ins for that position are still allowed during the general election.

For more on how the process works, Alameda County’s government site provides a really good explanation with visuals.

What’s the point, and who’s for/against it?

First passed by the legislature, Prop 14 was later trumpeted in 2010 by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger as a means of reforming California’s bitterly divided political system and breaking the gridlock in the state capitol. With a war chest of nearly $5 million, proponents of the measure made the case that an open primary process would force candidates to appeal to voters across party lines and to reach a larger swath of the public, resulting in a more moderate, less partisan set of elected officials. Backers also argued that increasing the number of choices on the ballot would boost voter turnout and give more political voice to California’s growing contingent of independent voters (about 20 percent of the electorate).

On the other side of the debate, both the state’s Republican and Democratic party leaders, as well as a number of smaller parties and big labor unions, strongly denounced the measure on the grounds that it would make primary campaigns significantly more expensive (because of the need to appeal to more people) and thus benefit the richest candidates with the most name recognition. Opponents also argued that it would decimate the authority of individual political parties and nearly eliminate opportunities for third party candidates to advance to the general election (remember that in the old system, candidates from each of those parties were guaranteed spots in November).

In the end, though, nearly 54 percent of voters approved the measure, an indication of the public’s growing discontent with California’s political establishment. Some political analysts, however, suggested that many of the voters supporting the measure may not of really understood what they were voting for. And interestingly, San Francisco and Orange County, on opposite ends of California’s political spectrum, were among the only counties that opposed the measure.

The new law, which survived an initial legal challenge, went into effect last year.

What’ll be the impact?

It obviously remains to be seen, but a report by the Center for Governmental Studies predicts that the new system will have the most effect on state senate races, which often include well established candidates who have termed out of other offices. The report identified a handful of past legislative and congressional races in California in which a top-two system (had it been in place then) would have resulted in two candidates from the same party facing each other in the general election. The report also predicted that the new system’s biggest impact would be felt in “supermajority districts” where 25 percent or more voters belonged to either party (these make up about a third of the state’s legislative districts).

Is it just déjà vu, or have we gone through something like this before?

We have indeed (never a dull moment with California politics)!

In 1996, voters approved Proposition 198, which instituted the “blanket primary.” The system was similar to our new open primary, in that voters could choose any candidate they wanted regardless of party affiliation. The one crucial difference, however, was that rather than a top-two tier system, the blanket primary resulted in the candidate from each party with the most votes (regardless of where those votes came from) to advance to the general election.

The system was challenged in federal court and ultimately struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 7-2 decision, on the basis that it violated a political party’s First Amendment right of association.

And more recently, yet another attempt to institute open primaries in California, which appeared on the ballot in 2004 (Prop 62), was rejected.


Matthew Green

Matthew Green runs KQED’s News Education Project, an online resource for educators and the general public to help explain the news. The project lives at

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