Independent, objective, nonpartisan research
Press Release · April 30, 2014

Top-Two Primary Engages Independents—Despite Low Turnout Overall

Analysis Also Finds Key Differences Between Primary, General Electorates

SAN FRANCISCO, April 30, 2014—In the first test of California’s top-two primary in 2012, the new system failed to produce the increase in voter turnout that many had hoped for. But it did appear to encourage participation of independent voters. Under the new system independents are no longer required to take the extra step of requesting a ballot with all legislative and congressional contests on it. As a result, more independents appear to have voted in these primary races than they had under the old system.

These are among the key findings of a report released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).

One of the goals of the top-two primary is to get more voters to the polls, but turnout in the 2012 California primary was the lowest of any presidential primary in 90 years. This was at least partly because the races for president and U.S. Senate were low key. But the result raised questions about turnout in primaries generally and about the impact of the new top-two system, in which voters can vote for any candidate from any party and the two top vote-getters—regardless of party—compete in the general election.

“Reform efforts to increase turnout may not prove particularly effective, but the top-two primary does appear to have already encouraged more independents to vote in legislative and congressional contests,” said Eric McGhee, PPIC research fellow and author of the report.

The shift to the top two has added new urgency to the question of who votes in the primary and who doesn’t. The PPIC report finds that California’s primary electorate is older, less likely to be Latino or Asian American, and typically more Republican than the electorate in the general election. The partisan differences mattered little in the old system because every party that ran at least one candidate in the primary would be assured a place on the fall ballot.

Now, primary voters can close off the possibility of a contest between parties in the fall. There has already been one primary race for a competitive seat that resulted in a same-party contest in November—the 31st congressional district in San Bernardino County. The PPIC analysis shows that the outcome almost certainly would have been different if the fall electorate had voted in the primary.

The true effect of the shift to the top-two primary will be clearer once the new system becomes more familiar to voters and to the campaign consultants looking to mobilize them. But an analysis of voter turnout in California primaries over time, as well as the experience of other states, yields the following conclusions:

  • California’s turnout is likely to continue to decline. Other states that have used open primaries over the past 30 years have not experienced generally higher turnout. Part of the reason is that independents appear to be fickle primary voters, inclined to participate only when a ballot includes a close race. At the same time, California’s primary turnout is one of the highest in the nation.
  • Compared to the general election, primary turnout is driven by the dynamics of individual candidate races and the presence of initiatives on the ballot. California’s decision to move citizen initiatives to the fall ballot can be expected to further depress turnout, since the June 2014 primary will be first in decades with no statewide citizen initiative. Two statewide measures placed on the ballot by the legislature may be enough to draw more voters to the polls this year. But in future primaries with no initiatives at all, turnout is likely to be between 3 and 7 percentage points lower than it might otherwise be.
  • The 2012 general electorate consistently voted in races for higher office—president or senator—but often skipped voting in same-party candidate races lower on the ballot. The top two was meant to provide a better set of choices in the general election for heavily partisan districts where the fall outcome was typically a foregone conclusion. But it appeared to have discouraged vote choice in legislative or congressional primary races where two Republicans or two Democrats faced off.
  • Contrary to some expectations, online registration and same-day registration may not increase voter turnout in the primaries. These two reforms do not appear to have boosted primary participation in other states.

Given the partisan and demographic biases of the primary electorate and the aggressive way the top-two primary winnows the field, McGhee suggests an option to explore: allowing more than two candidates in the general election in limited cases, whether through a write-in or an independent petition drive candidacy. Such candidacies are now explicitly forbidden under the top-two primary.

The report, Voter Turnout in Primary Elections, is supported with funding from the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation.


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. 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.

Public Policy Institute of California