Voices & Choices

California's 2016 Top Two Primary Results at a Glance

California's 2016 Top Two Primary Results at a Glance

Note: As more ballots are counted in California, some results are changing. When the count is completed in July, we will update this post.

While Hillary Clinton’s securing of the Democratic nomination for President dominated this week’s news cycle, Tuesday’s primary results in California also yielded notable facts for the electoral reform community. The 2016 primary marked the third election cycle of statewide races when California employed the “Top Two” method, in which candidates from all parties for State Assembly, State Senate, US House, and this year, Barbara Boxer’s open US Senate seat, appeared on the same ballot. The top two vote getters in each race, regardless of party, then advance to the November general election. As it has done in the past, FairVote will be providing more extensive analysis of this unique system’s outcomes in the coming weeks, but we wanted to share a few key findings now:

  1. One-party general elections: The general election will take place without a Republican candidate in six US House races as well as the US Senate contest between Democrats California Attorney General Kamala Harris and Rep. Loretta Sanchez--ensuring that the Senate will have either its second-ever African American woman or first-ever Latina. This will be the first time in over a century that Californians will not have the option to vote for a Republican for U.S. Senate.

    Of 53 House races, 47 will be traditional Democrat vs. Republican contests, while Four will involve Democrats facing Democrats, with two of those being potentially competitive. Two will involve a Democrat facing an non-major party candidate who advanced in races where only one major party candidate won.

    Republican presumptive nominee Donald Trump did not face an active opponent in the presidential race, but notably he ran a poor third behind HIllary Clinton and Bernie Sanders; he also trailed them in Michigan despite Republicans collectively earning more votes than Democrats.

  2. Vote-splitting: Kamala Harris likely will face a more competitive challenge from fellow Democrat Loretta Sanchez than she would have from a Republican. Sanchez benefited from the many GOP candidates splitting the 29% of votes cast for  Republicans, allowing Sanchez to advance with 18%.  Having such split votes in divided fields was even more common in races for the state legislature.

  3. Incumbents advance: No incumbents defending their seat in the US House or the state legislature fell outside of the top two places in open primary races. That means all incumbents seeking re-election will be on the ballot in November. No incumbent US House candidate lost in California in 2014.

  4. Third parties and independents largely denied: The fact that California does not use the Top Two primary for president means that in that contest California voters can consider minor party candidates like Libertarian Gary Johnson and Green Jill Stein. But no third party or independent candidate for Congress or state legislature advanced to the November ballot when more than one major party candidate ran--and only one advanced in 53 congressional races and 100 state legislative races in which a third party or independent appeared on the primary ballot.

  5. When 50% ends the contest: Some of California’s largest cities and counties also use the Top Two method for local office. However, they usually declare a winner if a candidate receives a majority of the vote in the primary. That happened this week in mayoral elections in Sacramento and San Diego -- leaving these races off the ballot in November when many more voters historically turn out.  If this rule had been in place for higher-level races, more than 80% of congressional elections would now be over.

  6. Voter turnout: In the first use of Top Two in 2012, California had its lowest-ever presidential primary year turnout, and in 2014 had its lowest-ever primary turnout. Turnout will increase this year, but we won’t know the final turnout until all the ballots are counted--a slow process in many California counties. But there’s no doubt that turnout will be far higher and representative in November, but with far fewer candidates running.


Photo Courtesy: Lonnie Tague of the Department of Justice

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