In the first test of California’s top-two primary in 2012, the new system failed to produce the increase in voter turnout that many had hoped for. But it did appear to encourage participation of independent voters. Under the new system independents are no longer required to take the extra step of requesting a ballot with all legislative and congressional contests on it. As a result, more independents appear to have voted in these primary races than they had under the old system.
These are among the key findings of a report released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).
One of the goals of the top-two primary is to get more voters to the polls, but turnout in the 2012 California primary was the lowest of any presidential primary in 90 years. This was at least partly because the races for president and U.S. Senate were low key. But the result raised questions about turnout in primaries generally and about the impact of the new top-two system, in which voters can vote for any candidate from any party and the two top vote-getters—regardless of party—compete in the general election.
"Reform efforts to increase turnout may not prove particularly effective, but the top-two primary does appear to have already encouraged more independents to vote in legislative and congressional contests,” said Eric McGhee, PPIC research fellow and author of the report.
The shift to the top two has added new urgency to the question of who votes in the primary and who doesn’t. The PPIC report finds that California’s primary electorate is older, less likely to be Latino or Asian American, and typically more Republican than the electorate in the general election. The partisan differences mattered little in the old system because every party that ran at least one candidate in the primary would be assured a place on the fall ballot.
Now, primary voters can close off the possibility of a contest between parties in the fall. There has already been one primary race for a competitive seat that resulted in a same-party contest in November—the 31st congressional district in San Bernardino County. The PPIC analysis shows that the outcome almost certainly would have been different if the fall electorate had voted in the primary.The report identifies an important reason why turnout will be especially low this year:
The effect of initiative campaigns deserves close consideration because of a recent policy change. The California Legislature, through SB 202 in 2011, offered a new interpretation of the state constitution and declared that all citizen initiatives must appear on the general election ballot. As a result, the June 2014 primary will be the first in decades that does not include a statewide citizen initiative. However, the June ballot will not be devoid of all ballot measures: The legislature has placed two of its own proposals on the ballot, and it is possible that these two will be enough to draw voters to the polls. However, our analysis suggests that should future primary elections fail to include any initiatives on the ballot, primary turnout is likely to be between three and seven percentage points lower than it might otherwise be.Here are some other reasons why turnout will sag:
- There are no US Senate elections in California this year.
- In the gubernatorial race, Governor Brown has a big lead and is not yet campaigning. The Republican contenders have raised little money and are unknown to many voters.
- Scandals have dampened political enthusiasm among Californians.