California Voters Go to Extremes Despite Top-Two System

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

According to a new study released by the California Journal of Politics & Policy, Proposition 14, which was intended to entice voters toward more moderate positions by allowing the top two vote-getting candidates in the open primary to advance to a November run-off, has failed.

Passed in 2010, Proposition 14’s proponents assumed that candidates would move away from extreme positions because they would no longer have to capitulate to the most hard-line members of their parties in order to gain the nomination. But the study finds that not only did the state’s Democrats refuse to moderate their positions, but voters still looked for candidates with more polarized positions even after the proposition was implemented.

As part of the study, Washington University’s Betsy Sinclair wrote, “To summarize, our articles find very limited support for the moderating effects associated with the top-two primary.…It is possible that voters simply need to adapt.”

The study points out that voters still looked for party affiliation when casting their ballots. In 2012’s State Assembly races, for example, only 5.5% of Democrats and 7.6% of Republicans sided with a candidate from the other party.

The expected boost in turnout from the new system did not materialize; the Los Angeles Times noted that the study analyzed “orphaned voters,” the voters without a candidate from their party in the November run-off, and found they often did not vote at all. Independent voters, finally able to cast their votes in the primary, from which they had previously been barred, showed disinterest: only roughly 25% voted in the June 2014 primary, the lowest turnout in California history.

The Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley convened a conference to ascertain why the top-two system failed, and pointed out that “voters were unable to identify the moderates in an intra-party primary, even when the ideologically differences between the candidates were stark.” The Public Policy Institute of California stated that since the top-two primary system started in 2012, there has been more intra-party competition. In 2014, there were more intra-party challenges than in the pre-top two era.