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The Good Things California’s ‘Top Two’ Elections Have Wrought

After a decade, the state’s open, nonpartisan primaries still have their critics, but it’s clear that they have steadily reduced polarization. The system could do the same for other states.

California voter
A La Habra Heights, Calif., voter accompanied by her poodles casts her ballot in the California primary election on Tuesday, June 7, 2022. (Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
After weeks of negotiation, Congress finally passed a bipartisan debt ceiling bill early this month. While the prospect of a catastrophic default should probably have been enough motivation to get federal lawmakers to work together, it appears that state election rules were a big factor as well. Of the Republican House members from states with nonpartisan primaries — Alaska, California, Louisiana and Washington — 95 percent voted to temporarily remove the debt ceiling. Only 65 percent of Republicans from partisan primary states did so.

This recent example is part of a promising trend. A growing body of evidence suggests that nonpartisan primaries reduce polarization and improve the quality of governance. This includes California’s “Top Two” electoral system for state and federal elections, in which all candidates regardless of party compete in a single primary and all voters are able to cast a vote. The two candidates with the most votes, again regardless of party, make it to the general election.

But as recently as a year ago, most were not singing Top Two’s praises. During the 2022 election cycle, prominent reporters and opinion writers celebrated the 10th anniversary of California’s election system by bashing it as a loser. A California-based writer for The New York Times implied that it creates perverse incentives, a Los Angeles Times columnist urged California to “keep experimenting,” and Sacramento Bee op-ed writers urged its repeal.

Not only were these assessments premature, but they failed to take into account the positive impact the election system has had on politics in California. According to an analysis I recently published with the Unite America Institute, California’s Top Two system is delivering on what advocates of primary reform promised. The report provides new evidence that it reduces polarization, increases turnout and even improves residents’ views of state government. During a period in which nearly every other state became more polarized, especially in the West, Top Two has reduced political polarization in the Golden State.

If that sentiment catches you by surprise, I get it. Even notable scholars in the democracy reform field were initially skeptical that Top Two would make much of an impact, let alone make California less polarized. But it’s important to think back to where California was when Top Two was just getting underway. California’s Legislature was ranked at the time as the most polarized in the nation. And not by a sliver, either. In fact, the gap between California and the second-most-polarized state at the time, Colorado, was larger than the gap between any other consecutively ranked states.

So given how polarized California was, it’s unreasonable to expect Top Two to have immediately turned the state into a beacon of moderation and civility. The evidence we’re after is not that Top Two has been a near-overnight panacea but rather that it has brought about incremental but measurable progress on depolarizing the state. By this standard, the system is working.

Between 2013 and 2018, California’s state legislature was one of only five in the country that became less polarized. In fact, since California implemented its Top Two system only Kansas and West Virginia depolarized more. Meanwhile, polarization increased in the vast majority of states — 38 out of 50 — during this period.

California’s performance under Top Two is even more impressive when judged against other states in the West, which have polarized more than those in any other region. From 2013 to 2018, the four states where polarization increased the most were Arizona, Colorado, Oregon and Utah. Thanks to Top Two, California is trending in the opposite direction.

Top Two is also substantially lowering extremism among members of Congress from California. Again, the debt ceiling vote is a compelling recent example. All 12 Republican members from California voted for the bipartisan deal to avoid default.

To be fair to critics, early data did tell a different story. In 2014, research showed that Top Two had had no meaningful effect on elected officials’ behavior. However, University of Southern California political scientist Christian Grose analyzed data up to 2018, allowing for more time to observe potential effects of the reform. Grose found that legislators elected under Top Two were almost 20 percent less ideologically extreme than legislators elected in closed primaries. Consistent with this trend, Eric McGhee, a political scientist at the Public Policy Institute of California, found that Top Two had led Democrats to create a friendlier business environment by reducing regulatory barriers.

For years, former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and other electoral reform advocates have argued that Top Two would reduce ideological extremism and polarization in government. While many Californians are understandably frustrated by continued acrimony and extremism in the state, the Top Two primary system has California moving in the right direction — at a time when most of the country is not. The state was deep in the well of polarization but is making progress. “Climb faster or quit” is an unfair takeaway, since it’s a big deal that California is climbing at all.

Richard Barton is a Democracy Fellow at Unite America and a professor at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
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