California’s “top two” primary system didn’t create the disaster scenario Tuesday that some had predicted but still caused enough havoc to generate calls for reform. Among the ideas likely to come forward is a change to “top four plus ranked choice voting,” which would be a huge step forward for election reform in the US. It’s possible the political angst of recent months could translate into a sufficiently broad support for this to pass, as all political groups struggle with a system not working well for anyone.
The amendment Californians backed 8 years ago, which opened primaries to all candidates and voters regardless of party affiliation, with the top two moving to the general election, made sense in some ways. The reform recognized that traditional party primaries no longer fit a state where 3rd party and independent voters make up the second largest block. What hadn’t been anticipated was the explosion of grassroots activity that has circumvented party control of candidate nomination, giving rise to very crowded primaries, vote splitting, and unrepresentative results. Democrats had to fear that vote splitting Tuesday would mean no Ds advancing in districts critical to the party’s push for the House. Likewise, Rs worried about being shut out of the top two in all state level races. It took some money and “gamesmanship” from party leadership but both scenarios were averted, a process that along the way further strained relations among party leaders and rank and file.
There are already ballot initiative proposals in motion, one to return to the old system, one to change to top four with simple plurality deciding the ultimate winner. Neither is a good solution; instead the best fix would be keeping the open primary concept, but with the top four moving forward and the general election decided using ranked choice voting . That approach would give voters a meaningful range of options at the general election and a voting and counting system that would ensure victory for the most supported candidate. Both parties would benefit from the near certainty of a spot in the general elections, and more independents and third parties candidates would make it through, which in turn would encourage turnout from those voters, who seem to largely stay away from the top two primaries. (27% of the House candidates Tuesday were independent or third party, in total they received less than 5% of the votes cast, despite that block being nearly 30% of the electorate.)