“Top two” systems are two-round systems in which all candidates appear on the same ballot in a non-partisan primary election. Voters vote for one. The two candidates with the most votes advance to the general election, regardless of party affiliation or preference. Essentially, it is a system that always requires a runoff even if a candidate earns over half the votes in the first round.
Top-two aims to accomplish several goals as touted by its proponents: it treats all voters equally in the primary election, rather than party primaries which limit voters to participating in the primary election of their preferred political party; it ensures that the winner will have a majority of votes compared to their opponent; and it attempts to diminish the polarizing nature of party primaries.
Top-two requires a non-partisan primary election.
RCV is more flexible, working well with partisan primaries, non-partisan primaries, or no primary election at all.
Top-Two presents drastically limited choices in the higher-turnout general election.
Top-two elections use a low-turnout primary election to narrow the field to two, rather than presenting a full range of choices to voters during the general election which can include independent and third-party candidates. In California, which began using top-two voting in 2012, turnout in primary elections has remained at about half of turnout in general elections, and the voting population in primaries tends to be older, whiter, and more conservative than that of general elections. As such, the candidates most representative of the electorate may not be those who succeed in the lower-turnout primary election, and those candidates may never face a general election. Even the state’s second-largest party, the Republicans, have been shut out of many high-profile statewide contests. About half of Republican voters often skip general elections lacking a Republican candidate.
RCV prevents vote-splitting.
Crowded fields in top-two primaries can result in vote-splitting between similar candidates, potentially advancing candidates with little support. For example, in 2012 in California’s 31st congressional district, a majority-Democratic district in which a majority of voters are people of color, the district advanced two white, conservative Republicans to the general election. This occurred because only two Republicans ran, whereas the Democratic vote was divided among four Democratic candidates. A similar result occurred in 2016 in Washington State’s election for State Treasurer, where three Democrats split a majority of the vote cast in the primary in a way that allowed two Republicans to advance.
Top-two voting is used for state and federal elections in California and Washington, and the same system without party labels is used for state legislative elections in Nebraska. Louisiana uses a contingent runoff system, which is similar, except that a candidate can win election in the first round if they earn a majority of votes.
This example will examine the 2016 election for state treasurer in Washington state, which uses top-two voting.
A majority of voters voted for a Democratic candidate, yet two Republicans advanced to the general election. Top-two voting failed to prevent vote-splitting between similar candidates. Additionally, during the general election when turnout is highest and most representative, top-two voting limits the field and denies voters a full range of choices. In 2020, the incumbent Republican then lost after Democrats strategically fielded only one candidate.
In RCV, voters may rank backup choices without fear that it will harm their first choice candidate. Therefore, a majority faction can consolidate support around a front-runner candidate from that party rather than splitting the vote.