WASHINGTON, D.C. – The recent midterm elections marked a decade since California moved to its “Top Two” election format, but after half a dozen election cycles including hundreds of races, Top Two isn’t working. The state Legislature is the most polarized in the nation, partisan animosity is through the roof and thousands of Californians couldn’t vote for a candidate from their preferred party. The problem isn’t the blanket primary; it’s the artificial cap of two winners. It’s time to expand to five.
When California adopted Proposition 14 in 2010, the logic was straightforward: the candidates who advanced from the open primary would better reflect the views of voters in their districts. Since candidates from all parties—including those with no party affiliation—would appear together on the ballot, this new system would reward candidates who appealed to the mainstream rather than just to each party’s base voters.
Top Two promised to undo radicalization of candidates and disenfranchisement of independent voters that critics argue are a side effect of traditional primaries. But this promise has not borne out in practice. Part of the problem is that Top Two still typically generates a race between one Democrat and one Republican, which is little different than before.
In districts that are dominated by one party, the general election may feature two candidates from the same party. In theory, the candidate with the broader appeal should win. However, there is little evidence that this has happened in the decade since the reform’s implementation. In fact, California’s Legislature is even more polarized than the U.S. Congress.
As recently as 2013, some Democrats and Republicans within the state Senate were ideologically closer to each other than they were to most of the members of their own party. But that is no longer the case as Democrats have coalesced around a much more progressive position, and only a handful of moderate Republicans remain. Top Two has failed to deliver.
California would be better served by Final Five Voting. Similar to what Alaska has implemented, Final Five Voting maintains the blanket primary but the top five candidates advance rather than the top two. From there, they compete in an instant-runoff election where voters rank the candidates and the winner is the candidate with the broadest support.
In short, Final Five Voting provides all the advantages promised by Top Two without the downsides created by only having two candidates. The primary election doesn’t ask voters to identify “the best Democrat” and “the best Republican” as so often happens under Top Two. Rather, voters can freely pick their personal favorite with the confidence that their candidate will advance among the top five.
Additionally, in the general election, the choice doesn’t come down to the lesser of two evils for the millions of independent or third-party voters in California. California has nearly as many No Party Preference (NPP) voters as Republicans. Instead, these NPPs are far more likely to find a candidate they actually like, and with ranked-choice voting they are not punished for “throwing away their votes.” This creates a stronger incentive for candidates to create a broad coalition of support instead of an extremely partisan one.
The shift from Top Two to Final Five Voting would be a modest one. The state already uses a blanket primary. The only difference during the primary stage is that five candidates would advance instead of two. Granted, implementing instant runoffs with ranked-choice ballots would require voter education to ensure a smooth transition, and election technology would need to be updated to accept ranked-choice ballots, both of which cost time and money. However, these costs are one-time expenses.
California is especially well-equipped to make this change as several local governments, accounting for over 1.6 million residents, already use instant runoffs in some elections with success. For example, the first instant runoff election in Oakland saw 85 percent of voters rank multiple candidates, and the reform has since encouraged candidates to engage with voters who support their opponents. This change would simply need to be expanded to the rest of the state for the general election.
California voters have been limited to two options on the general election ballot but political divisions are still deep and outcomes haven’t improved. Top Two was a good try, but Final Five Voting gives voters more options while encouraging a healthier political culture. It’s time to give Final Five Voting the nod.