All blogs
All three things
All news
No items found.

California dreaming: New report shows Top Two is a political game-changer

This week's Three Things discusses new research on the effectiveness of California's top-two primary system

Ross Sherman
Press Director
June 8, 2023

Happy anniversary to California’s Top Two election system! Today, June 8th, marks the 13-year anniversary of California voters saying YES to fixing the Primary Problem. In 2010, they approved Proposition 14, which eliminated partisan primaries and established a top-two nonpartisan primary. This week, the Unite America Institute is releasing new research on the effectiveness of California’s top-two system.

🚨Spoiler alert: Top Two is delivering on its promises of better politics and governance. And as anyone who reads this newsletter knows, we’re all about fixing the Primary Problem here at Unite America. So, naturally, we’ve dedicated this entire edition to California’s Primary Solution!

1. How it happened

Back in 2010, millions of Californians didn’t have a meaningful say in electing their representatives. The problem? Partisan primaries. Because the vast majority of general elections were noncompetitive (thanks to gerrymandering and self-sorting of the electorate), the primary was typically the only election that mattered. If you were a registered Republican in a bright blue district, you often had no say in who your representative was because you couldn’t participate in the Democratic primary – where the winner was almost always chosen. The same was true in deep red districts for Democrats. In short, the Primary Problem was alive and well in the Golden State.

Continuing under that system was a recipe for continued dysfunction and discontent. So a bipartisan coalition of reformers, including former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, former Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado, and moderate labor and business groups, championed a ballot measure to fix it: Proposition 14. A majority of Californians voted to give themselves better representation and a better government, and the rest is history.

In case you missed it: Unite America gave Gov. Schwarzenegger the Champion of Democracy award for supporting an election system that gives voters better representation.

2. The impact of Top Two in California

Not only did advocates succeed in passing and implementing the reform, but they were right that it would improve California’s politics by decreasing polarization and encouraging bipartisanship, among other benefits.

We know now that Top Two delivered on those promises… but early data suggested it didn’t have much of an impact. The reason for that is simple: time. That early review only looked at the first two election cycles under the new system, and electoral reform takes time to yield positive results. And let’s not forget that pre-Top Two, California was the most polarized state in the country. So it was always unrealistic to expect that California would become a beacon of bipartisanship in just four years. Better to give it a decade, then circle back.

Thirteen years later, that’s where Unite America Institute’s new, shiny report comes in! With the benefit of more time, Dr. Richard Barton, Unite America Fellow and Syracuse Professor, finds that Top Two is delivering on many of those original promises:

  • Since 2010, Californians’ approval of state government has soared by 20 points.
  • As most state legislatures across the country have gotten more polarized, particularly Western states, California is one of only five states trending in the other direction.
  • Finally, new legislators elected under top-two were significantly less extreme than those elected under closed primaries elsewhere.

On that last point, Dr. Barton has a compelling recent example: 

Now I want to be clear: Top-two nonpartisan primaries are not the panacea for political dysfunction, but this research shows they’re certainly better than the status quo. If you want to dive deeper into the findings, be sure to check out the full report. If you want the quick topline takeaways, head to our blog post and Tweet thread (and please share / Retweet!)

3. California isn’t the only state tackling the Primary Problem

Last year, the Unite America Institute published similar research on Louisiana, which eliminated partisan primaries in the 1970s. If you haven’t already, check out Dr. Barton’s piece in Governing explaining how that system is also reducing polarization and improving governance.

Later this summer, we’ll also take a look at Alaska’s top-four system and how it’s delivering on its promises. Together, the three reports make up our Solutions Series — research dedicated to examining nonpartisan election reform in action. We won’t bury the lede: The research shows that primary reform works. It’s politically viable. And it makes the Primary Problem the most solvable problem in American politics today.