Open primaries are working in California

In these times of bitter partisanship and increasing polarization, it might seem impossible to find an issue upon which leaders of both parties can agree. We found that issue in California, where partisans on both sides decried the state’s unique top-two “jungle primary” system. Why the animosity towards an open primary? It’s simple—because it works. Open primaries empower moderates and dilute the influence of the political extremes.

In a top-two primary, all candidates for a political office, regardless of political affiliation, are on the same ballot. All voters are eligible to vote in that primary, and the top two candidates advance to the general election. The system in California was implemented after a successful 2010 ballot initiative, overcoming the vociferous opposition of partisans on both the left and the right. Supporters rightly claimed the new process would deny parties the ability to directly select their own candidates, and would instead give moderates more influence in primary elections.

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A 2017 Pew Research Center survey found that the people who are most politically active and who vote most often in primary elections are also those whose political views are most ideologically extreme. The key to success for a candidate running for office in a closed primary is to appeal to the most highly partisan voters. This is one of the main reasons why studies have shown that members of Congress generally hold more extreme views than their constituents as a whole, and why compromise has become a dirty word in Washington and many state capitals. 

In California, more than one-quarter of the electorate are independents. In a closed primary, those voters would be unable to influence who the candidates will be for the general election. More often than not, those independent voters would then be forced in the general election to choose between candidates who are aligned with the two partisan extremes.

In an open primary, those independents become a key voting block for prospective candidates. When running for office in a top-two primary, candidates must consider the views of those independents, along with the views of other third-party voters and even voters from the other major party. Research has shown that this reform has made a positive difference in Sacramento.

A May 2018 study by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) found that Democrats in the state legislature have become more moderate since enactment of voting reforms like the top-two primary. This shift towards moderation is even more significant given the fact that Democrats in other state legislatures have moved further to the left. A 2017 study by political scientists Eric McGhee and Boris Shor similarly showed California’s election reforms to be making a difference in moving elected officials more towards the center.

The unique political environment in California provides an opportunity for detractors of the top-two system to offer evidence of its ineffectiveness. But one thing is certain—the top-two primary has disrupted the voting process and brought together strange bedfellows who rarely agree on anything. Both the majority leader and the minority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives, Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyHouse GOP reverses, cancels vote on Dem bill to abolish ICE Pelosi: 'The Russians have something on the president' The Hill's Morning Report — Trump, Putin meet under cloud of Mueller’s Russia indictments MORE (R-Calif.) and Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiRoby wins Alabama GOP runoff, overcoming blowback from Trump criticism Mellman: (Mis)interpreting elections Overnight Health Care: Trump officials score a win against Planned Parenthood | Idaho residents to vote on Medicaid expansion | PhRMA, insurers weigh in on Trump drug pricing plan MORE (D-Calif.), have strongly criticized California’s open primary. Likewise, the leaders of the state’s Democratic and Republican parties oppose the system.

The top-two reform has also brought together advocates who don’t often see eye-to-eye. In recent days, the editorial boards of the liberal-leaning Sacramento Bee and San Francisco Chronicle have joined the conservative-leaning San Diego Union Tribune in publishing strong endorsements of California’s top-two primary. Most important, the voters themselves are happy with the new primary process. According to a December study by PPIC, 60 percent of California voters approve of the top-two system.

Few political reforms would do more to encourage compromise among our elected officials and to moderate the tone of our nation’s political discourse than those which incentivize candidates to appeal to the entire electorate, rather than simply pander to the extremes. Open primaries give a powerful voice to moderate voters and independents who have traditionally been locked-out of the primary process. This is why those who benefit from ideologically driven closed primaries are the most vocal opponents of California-style top-two elections.

Certainly, the system is not perfect. Like any new reform, occasional anomalies can occur which result in unintended consequences. But open primaries are undoubtedly a step in the right direction for those interested in moderating our political discourse and reducing the historic levels of polarization that have infected every level of government. Simply put, open primaries work. 

Jason Altmire served three terms in the United States House of Representatives from 2007 to 2013. He is the author of the book “Dead Center: How Political Polarization Divided America and What We Can Do About It.” Follow him on Twitter at: @jasonaltmire