Fixing Top Two in California

Posted on June 18, 2013

In 2010, California voters approved a ballot measure establishing a Top Two primary system. Top Two replaced a system in which partisan primaries were followed by a general election among nominees of each party and independents. Under Top Two, all candidates compete against each other in the first preliminary election irrespective of party preferences. Voters have one vote, and the two candidates receiving the most votes advance to the general election, again irrespective of party preferences. California’s new system was used for all state and congressional elections for the first time in 2012. This report examines the impact of the system on voter choice, representation and competition and explores the potential impact of a revised model of the system: advancing more than two candidates with ranked choice voting in the general election. We find that Top Two has made little difference in most races, yet has created new problems. It improves competition and inclusion only at a troubling cost. Fortunately, a simple change would make Top Two more likely to accomplish the goals of Top Two supporters while avoiding its pitfalls. We demonstrate the value of a simple change: advancing four candidate to the general election and using ranked choice voting to accommodate increased voter choice.


California’s new system was used for all state and congressional elections for the first time in 2012. This report examines the impact of the system on voter choice, representation and competition and explores the potential impact of a revised model of the system: advancing more than two candidates with ranked choice voting in the general election.

We find that Top Two has made little difference in most races, yet has created new problems. It improves competition and inclusion only at a troubling cost. Fortunately, a simple change would make Top Two more likely to accomplish the goals of Top Two supporters while avoiding its pitfalls. We demonstrate the value of a simple change: advancing four candidate to the general election and using ranked choice voting to accommodate increased voter choice.

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