Turnout in California’s recent primary election was abysmal: the secretary of state is reporting that 21.5 percent of registered voters participated. This report doesn’t include many ballots yet to be counted but, according to educated guesses, those ballots won’t push turnout over 23 percent. This would be a record low for California.
Should we blame California’s new “top two” primary for this sad state of affairs? After all, turnout has been pretty low in both of the top-two primary elections California has had so far. Surely it’s part of the story?
This is an explanation in search of a theory. There is no clear reason why California’s new system would discourage people from voting. Many voters probably don’t even remember that we have a top-two system until they look at their ballot. When I examined this issue in a recent PPIC report, I found little evidence that open primaries affect turnout one way or the other. We can’t credit the top-two, but we can’t blame it, either.
The ups and downs of statewide turnout are driven by top-of-the-ticket competition: president, U.S. Senate, governor, and initiatives. An interesting race in one U.S. House, state assembly, or state senate district is going to engage only the voters in that district—often only a fraction of them.
For better or worse, top-of-the-ticket competition has been in short supply of late. In 2012, the presidential primary season was basically over by the time California had its primary, and Dianne Feinstein’s reelection to the U.S. Senate that year was all but a foregone conclusion. This time around, there is no presidential contest and no U.S. Senate race, and the gubernatorial contest has yet to catch fire. On top of all that, statewide citizen initiatives are now banned from the primary ballot. The legislature can place its own measures on the primary ballot (and did so in 2014), but these often lack the hot-button excitement of a citizen initiative campaign.
California does need to think seriously about how to improve primary turnout, which has been declining for decades. But we can’t pin this primary’s low participate rate on the top-two system. It was a predictable result of the statewide campaigns offered to voters. We had one of the highest primary turnouts on record in February 2008, when both the Republicans and Democrats had competitive presidential primaries and California had a say in deciding the outcome. If we get more competition in 2016 or 2018, we’ll probably see a different outcome than we did last week.