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Open Season on Primaries

Published by USC Bedrosian Center on

photo credit: Janne L via photopin cc

Will open primaries turn the tide of partisanship? photo credit: Janne L via photopin cc

by Jeremy Loudenback

The shock of the Representative Eric Cantor’s loss in the Virginia Republican primary earlier this summer has not quite subsided for some, including U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer (D-NY).

According to a New York Times op-ed written by Schumer, Cantor’s loss to a small group of ideologically driven voters in the primary is the latest sign of an unhealthy primary system that is continuing the country’s already dire turn toward political polarization.

The remedy for the overwhelmingly tide of partisanship, according to Schumer, is to be found in California. He cites the state’s use of the open primary, or top-two, system as key factor in reducing gridlock. The idea is that during primary elections voters are free to choose any candidate, regardless of party. The top two vote getters advance to the general election even if it means two candidates from the same party are on the final ballot.

California’s voters approved the open-primary system through a constitutional amendment with Proposition 14 in 2010. Since then, the election system has been hailed by some as a counter to candidates that appeal only to the more ideologically extreme elements of the parties as well as a way to encourage better governance.

Even though the system has yet to make it through two elections, the open-primary system has impacted elections in California by changing fundraising and campaign strategies. But has it actually led to an injection of moderation in the election process and produced greater voter turnout, as some of its proponents claim?

A few researchers and commentators say no, though it may be too soon to judge the open-primary system. At FiveThirtyEight, Harry Enten points to a study from University of California, Berkeley political scientists Douglas Ahler, Jack Citrin and Gabriel Lenz that says voters in the 2012 primary election in California did not reduce polarization, an effect that seems to be consistent with Washington state, where the open-primary system seems to have had a limited effect since 2008.

A May 2014 report from the Public Policy Institute of California also examined voter turnout from the 2012 election. According to the study, the new election system did not markedly affect voter turnout, though other factors, like the placement of initiatives on the ballot, may also play a significant role in driving voter turnout.

Political pundit Harold Meyerson continues to worry that in a heavily Democratic state like California an open-primary system (or a “jungle primary,” as he likes to call it) may lead to situations like this year’s race for state controller. In the primary election, several Democratic candidates, including former Assembly Speaker John Pérez and state Board of Equalization Board Member Betty Yee, split votes among themselves in the primary, nearly allowing two Republicans to advance to the general election in a state that leans heavily Democratic. (Yee narrowly edged Pérez in a recount, but both were only a few thousand votes ahead of Republican David Evans.) Unfortunately, Meyerson does not discuss frontrunner Ashley Swearengin’s popularity among California voters and whether her campaign and reputation for fiscal responsibility convinced voters of all affiliations to cast ballots for her.

With more time and more study, it will be interesting to see how much open primaries change the political system in California—and whether California voters will continue to support its use as enthusiastically as they did in approving the ballot proposition in 2010.

Bedrosian Center