CA Open Primary System: Does it Work?

Under California’s open ("top two") primary election system, adopted by the voters in June 2010 and first used in June 2012, political parties no longer nominate candidates from their parties.

Does our state’s open primary system make our government more democratic, as proponents promised in 2010? Is it working?

On Wednesday, Oct. 21, the League of Women Voters of Alameda (LWVA) will examine open primaries at a free public forum and panel discussion featuring State Controller Betty Yee at the Alameda Free Library, 1550 Oak St. Panelists Jennifer Ong, who ran for 20th Assembly District seat in 2012, and Ethan Rarick, associate director of the Institute for Intergovernmental Studies at the University of California, will add their perspectives to Yee’s.

According to the League of Women Voters of California, "In a statewide primary, California now has a top two open primary system, which means that all candidates running for state constitutional, U.S. Congressional, and state legislative offices will be listed on a single statewide primary election ballot. Voters can vote for the candidates of their choice for these offices, regardless of how they are registered. The top two candidates, as determined by the voters, will advance to the general election in November."

Candidates may list a "party preference" on the ballot, but, regardless of party affiliation, the two candidates with the most votes advance to the general election. Write-in candidates may enter the primary, but do not progress to the general election unless they have one of the top two primary election vote totals. Two Democrats or two Republicans have been the top vote getters in some districts.

(In the 2012 general election, Assemblyman Rob Bonta was elected when two Democrats faced off for the District 18 seat.) Presidential primary candidates or delegates are still elected by party affiliation, however.

Open Primary Pros and Cons

Supporters of California’s open primaries claim "three significant consequences" since open primaries began here in 2012: "more competitive elections," more equal voter influence in both the primary and general elections that "has forced candidates to appeal beyond their party’s base" and "a functional legislature."

Opponents of an open primary system claimed, "It will encroach upon each party’s right to control its own fate," and feared that open primaries would "limit choice," since "smaller parties are likely to be excluded from the fall election…" Others feared that "weakening party influence in elections will create a vacuum that will be filled by organized interests with agendas that are less transparent and public-spirited" — such as lobbyists.

Have Californians received the benefits promised by proponents of open primaries — or experienced the problems opponents feared? Come hear what our panelists have to say and bring your own questions. Please join LWVA on Wednesday, Oct. 21, at the Alameda Free Library from 7 to 9 p.m. and "help make democracy work."

Anne Spanier is the Co-president of the League of Women Voters of Alameda. Before moving to Alameda, she helped bring ranked-choice voting to Oakland while a member of the LWV of Oakland.


Lange Winckler
Lange Winckler's picture

The open primary system seems like a good idea - until its implications are closely examined.

The worst possibility is that someone like Donald Trump, with enough money and ambition to match, will pay people to vote. That's illegal, but prosecuting an offender is a nightmare.

Another problem is that parties can deliberately support opposition candidates who are the least likely to win a general election. I've run campaigns in the past, and would certainly take advantage of the law's loopholes to help a favorite contender win.

Making democracy work requires hard work. The LWV invests tremendous effort in educating people about the electoral system, candidates and ballot issues.

Malicious parties might take unfair advantage of election codes to use democracy's openness against the system.