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Press Release · February 10, 2010

Primary Reform Unlikely To Be Panacea for Partisanship

SAN FRANCISCO, February 10, 2010—The reform of California’s primary system that voters will consider on California’s June 2010 ballot would have only a modest effect on California’s politics if passed—although a small increase in moderate representation may build over time. These are the conclusions of a report released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).

The top two vote-getter primary, as the reform is known, allows voters to choose any candidate, regardless of party, for each state and congressional race. The two candidates receiving the most votes—even if they’re from the same party—would proceed to a fall runoff election. Proponents say that top two vote-getter primaries have the potential to reduce partisanship in the California legislature and the state’s congressional delegation by allowing moderate candidates to build winning coalitions from supporters across party lines.

The report draws on California’s experience with the blanket primary—which was similar to the top two vote-getter system—and on the experiences of other states with open primary laws. It finds that under the blanket primary moderate candidates were more likely to be elected to the California Assembly and that voting in the Assembly was more bipartisan, particularly among Democrats. But there was no comparable effect in the state Senate. Nationwide, the effect of open primaries has been more ambiguous, with the outcome of House elections sometimes more moderate and sometimes more extreme.

“The top two vote-getter primary would probably have a noticeable but modest effect on voting and representation in California,” says Eric McGhee, PPIC research fellow and author of the report, At Issue: Open Primaries. “We should not expect this reform to quickly or dramatically change the state’s partisan climate.”

The report also reviews evidence from California’s blanket primary to assess a variety of other predictions about the top two vote-getter primary. In both types of primaries, voters choose one candidate for each office without regard to party labels. But unlike the top two vote-getter system, the blanket primary advanced the top vote-getter within each party to the general election as the party nominee. Under the blanket primary, which was in effect in the 1998 and 2000 elections:

  • Crossover voting was sometimes very high. It was especially prevalent among Republicans in heavily Democratic districts and Democrats in heavily Republican ones. In the 2000 presidential contest, 27 percent of ballots were crossovers in one direction or the other.
  • Most voters didn’t cross party lines to sabotage the other party. Contrary to fears that voters might try to clear the way for their own party’s nominee by voting for the other party’s weakest candidate, most voters chose the candidates they liked best. Successful sabotage of another party’s candidates would require complicated coordination among voters.
  • Many crossed over to choose the incumbent because the incumbent was familiar. A top two vote-getter primary would be just as likely as the current system to maintain incumbents in office. However, this incumbency effect would insulate both moderates and partisans, so even a small moderating effect might build over time as moderate winners retain office and new ones arrive to join them.
  • Still more crossed over to participate in a competitive contest. Candidates with well-funded campaigns are generally better known and more competitive. As a result, disparities in campaign funding are likely to continue to play a significant role under a top two vote-getter primary.
  • Voter turnout was modestly higher. Voter participation was a few percentage points higher in 1998 and 2000 than in comparable midterm or presidential elections before or since.
  • Campaign spending increased, but not more than expected. Although there was an increase in campaign spending, it was no greater than would be predicted based on longer-term trends.


PPIC is dedicated to informing and improving public policy in California through independent, objective, nonpartisan research on major economic, social, and political issues. The institute was established in 1994 with an endowment from William R. Hewlett. As a private operating foundation, PPIC does not take or support positions on any ballot measure or on any local, state, or federal legislation, nor does it endorse, support, or oppose any political parties or candidates for public office.