California voters recently approved a ballot initiative that would drastically alter the Golden State’s election system. Instead of the traditional two-stage electoral process with separate Democratic and Republican primaries followed by a general election between the major party nominees along with any independent or third party candidates, the new system would feature an open primary in which all candidates would run together and the top two finishers regardless of party would face each other in the general election. Thus the general election could involve a Democrat and a Republican, two Democrats or two Republicans. Theoretically a third party or independent candidate could make it into the runoff, but that would be rather unlikely.
Backers of the “top two” primary system, including California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, argue that the reformed electoral process will encourage candidates to adopt more moderate positions in order to appeal to a broader primary electorate and that this will, in turn, make it easier to achieve bipartisan compromise and avoid the gridlock that has paralyzed the state in recent years.
But how realistic is the claim that the new primary system will reduce partisan polarization and gridlock in California?
Given the sharp ideological divide between Democratic and Republican voters, liberal Democrats will continue to dominate elections in Democratic regions of the state and conservative Republicans will continue to dominate elections in Republican regions of the state.
That’s exactly what has happened in the one state that has implemented a “top two” primary system. In Washington, which began using the new system in 2008, the electoral consequences were minimal. In all 9 of the state’s congressional districts the open primary produced a general election runoff between the Democratic or Republican incumbent and a challenger from the opposing party and in all 9 general election contests the incumbent was victorious. And based on the winners’ voting records in the 111th Congress, the new primary system has had no effect on partisan polarization—the gap between the state’s Democratic and Republican representatives was just as large in the current Congress as it was in the previous one. Expect the same results in California.