How Proposition 14 Works in California

Originally posted at on May 19, 2012

California’s Proposition 14, also known as the “Top Two Primaries Act” passed on June 8, 2010 and went into effect April 19, 2011. It affects elections for each state elective office and congressional office in California, including federal Representatives and Senators.

The gist of the bill is that the primaries determine whose names appear on the ballot in the general election. Only the top two vote-getters will advance, and all other candidates no longer have ballot access and write-ins are not counted. It also means that two Republicans can run against each other in the general election on November 6th, because the top two vote-getters win ballot access, irrespective of party affiliation.

Is this good for democracy? Would you not feel as though your choices were limited if you were, say, a Green party advocate and the only two choices were Republican and Democrat?

Both the League of Women Voters and the American Civil Liberties Union opposed the bill. Much more funding went toward passage of the bill than through fighting the bill, which begs the question: who wanted to get this legislation passed?

Michael Feinstein, attorney and former Mayor of Santa Monica is probably the best versed in Prop 14. He and Brandon Gesicki debate the merits/problems of the proposition in practice. Since the law was written to be misleading (calling the new type of primary an “open primary” instead of what it is: a top two primary), the points outlined by Michael Feinstein bear highlighting here:

  1. Prop 14 eliminates the right for all parties to have a candidate on the ballot in the general election
  2. Vote splitting among numerous candidates in the primary will have the effect that the top two vote getters may not be the best choices or most qualified
  3. It favors incumbents. In Washington state which has a similar law, only 1 incumbent lost in the general election out of 139 offices.
  4. The person who raises the most money the earliest in the race is motivated to push out all other candidates running in their same party, to avoid splitting party votes and lose the top two positions.
  5. It makes gerrymandered districts easier for the funders to win earlier in the race, by appealing to their base before the primaries rather than to a more general population of voters prior to the general election
  6. It makes it difficult for voters to know what ideals a candidate really represents, since candidates can change their party affiliation between the primary and the general. It can mislead the public into voting for someone who does the opposite in Washington than what the voter expected.

Prop 14 claims to allow more people to run in the primaries, because all party members and undeclared candidates can run. Also, every voter gets to vote in everybody’s primary. But these benefits were already available even before Prop 14 was passed, so did it really give voters anything new?

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