Key selling points for California’s new top-two primary were that it would get centrists and moderates into the state Legislature, bridge the gap between polarized Democrats and Republicans and even heal a fractured electorate.
While the newly implemented system ultimately may do just that, one aspect of top-two is clear: In the November general election, which will be a runoff between the top two vote-getters from the June primaries, California’s minor and independent political parties will be shut out of state races. That’s because no minor-party candidate was among the top voter getters in any of the Assembly, state Senate or congressional races across California. In addition, the law that created the top-two primary eliminated write-in candidates.
Is this goodbye to the little guy?
“This (top two) is made to give the impression that people are happy to have two choices in November but it’s really not,” said Michael Feinstein, spokesperson for the Green Party and former Mayor of Santa Monica. “By taking away write-in [candidates], we can’t even express that we don’t like these choices other than stay home.” Feinstein’s party has about 100,000 registered members in California, which has 17.1 million registered voters.
Approved in 2010, the top-two primary was created by Proposition 14, which requires that candidates run in a single primary open to all registered voters, but only the top two vote-getters will meet in a runoff in November’s general election.
Voters now get the chance to choose any candidate regardless of listed party preference. Before, each California political party had its own designated primary and the winners of those primaries were put on the general election ballot. There will no longer be a write-in candidate option on the ballot.
On June 5, seven parties qualified for the primary election ballot: Democrat, Republican, Peace and Freedom, Americans Elect, Green, Libertarian and American Independent.
Laura Wells, the 2010 Green Party candidate for Governor, said it is more expensive to run in primaries because of Proposition 14. The filing fees to run for California offices at the Congressional or state level is between 1 and 2 percent of the office’s annual salary. State senators and representatives make upwards of $100,000.
Parties can qualify for the ballot by providing registrations of voters equal to 1 percent of the total ballots cast in the previous gubernatorial election, or about 103,004 signatures, according to the secretary of state. That’s no easy feat for a small party.
“Top-two primaries favors incumbents and highly funded candidates,” Wells said. “It had a chilling effect on people’s ability to even run…people get disheartened.”
Critics of the new primary system also contend that because candidates now have the option of not listing their political party, this opens the window for rogue candidates to run for a party. Members of political parties can no longer vote on who will represent their party in the general election with only one official nominee from each party. Feinstein noted that this actually isn't the case any longer, because AB1413 -- which was approved in February -- changed the process and now candidates must list their party preference if they have one.
C.T. Weber, the state chairperson for the Peace and Freedom Party, is a critic of the top-two primary and has said that the number of candidates his party was able to run was greatly reduced because of the new system.
“I think people were duped. It’s a very undemocratic system,” Weber said. People were promised that they would get more choices and so while they may have gotten more choices in the much smaller, much more insignificant primary elections, the number of choices that they have are greatly reduced for the general election, he said.
“It’s also disingenuous to decide how you want to have the results of an election and then try to build an election system that will give you the results that you want,” Weber said.
The Peace and Freedom Party, its roots deep into the anti-Vietnam War protests during the 1960s, has approximately 60,000 members across the state.
Not all independent parties in California are bashing the top-two primary system.
Markham Robinson, executive committee chairperson of the conservative American Independent Party has come out in favor of the primary system. There are 430,000 registered American Independents in the state.
He said that even though it narrows the field for the general election, the primary round casts a wider net for candidates to make it to the general election. He also said he sees it as an opportunity to make inroads with more mainstream, conservative-minded politicians.
“We [were] able to convey our endorsements where our voters can see it,” Robinson said. “We took advantage of that and endorsed 78 candidates [in the June primary] - Republicans who were constitutionalists and conservative enough for us, followed by independents, libertarians – all the parties that are not left.”
Wells also said she saw opportunities for alternative parties to overtake the general election. The young people at a grassroots level need to mobilize.
“There is an opening and let’s go for it. Because anybody can vote for anybody in the June primary, then let’s run an independent in 2014 here in California and get in the top two. Sooner or later, this two-party system that we have here in this state and this country has got to crack,” Wells said.
The nonpartisan Field Poll, which has been surveying the California electorate since 1948, projected the June 5 primary with the lowest turnout in presidential primary history in California. No more than 6 million voters turned out for the primary. Primaries typically see low voter turnout compared to the general election in November.
“The current system overstates support for the large parties and understates people who favor the smaller parties, said Feinstein. “If you’re a democrat in Orange County or a Republican in San Francisco, you get no representation, so that’s not a smart system and that’s one of the faults of a winner-take-all system. What the top two primary jungle is, is a band-aid on a broken system.”
Ed's Note: Corrects Feinstein's first name in 4th graf and attribution in 18th graf, and adds changes under AB 1413 in 11th graf.