How “Top Two” Primaries Undermine Democracy

California’s system is designed to defang political parties. That’s the problem.

Voters cast their ballots at a Masonic Lodge on Tuesday in Los Angeles.
Voters cast their ballots at a Masonic Lodge on Tuesday in Los Angeles. Mario Tama/Getty Images

The ink was barely dry on the Constitution before Americans had organized themselves into political parties. Parties aren’t just a natural outgrowth of democracy—they are essential to democratic governance itself. Parties are how voters coordinate their interests and choose representatives. They help organize the messiness of democracy, clarifying issues and articulating stakes. In the case of American political parties, they have taken a complicated, archaic Constitution and made it relevant to voters at every stage of the nation’s history.

Despite this, Americans have always been deeply skeptical of political parties, perpetually seeking to limit their power and influence. More often than not, this backfires. For a good example, look to Tuesday’s elections in California.

The state is critical in the Democratic fight to win a majority in the House of Representatives. Republicans hold seven districts that Hillary Clinton won in 2016, and flipping them would substantially raise the prospects that Democrats can retake the House. In any other state, the path would be clear: Recruit strong candidates, hope they win their primaries, and begin the race for November.

In California, it’s different. The state doesn’t have primaries; it has a “top two” race, in which the top two vote-getters in a June primary election proceed to the general, regardless of party. Erected by referendum in 2010, the “top-two” system is supposed to circumvent party primaries on both sides to produce Democrats and Republican who appeal to the broad electorate.

In practice, the system turns each cycle into a potential fiasco. The “top-two” elections might produce a Democrat and a Republican for the November ballot, or they could produce two Republicans or two Democrats. That’s what happened in 2016 when conservative Californians were forced to choose between a liberal Democrat, Kamala Harris, and another liberal Democrat, Loretta Sanchez. The reverse may happen on Tuesday, where a number of congressional districts have multiple candidates vying for the Democratic nod. If Democratic voters and elites can’t coordinate their votes—and it seems like they can’t—then the party could be locked out of the election in the fall, jeopardizing their chances to win back the House. In other words, Democrats could cast the large majority of ballots on Tuesday and still lose representation if they don’t cast them for the right candidates.

The “top-two” system was pitched as a way to broaden democracy and participation, but in reality it does neither. Because there are no parties choosing nominees, top two is essentially the first stage of the general election—with much lower turnout because of its timing in June. An additional consequence is that third parties are shut out of the process, weeded out from the start in a first-past-the-post ballot access mechanism. The large majority of voters then lose the chance to evaluate messages from outside the mainstream. And in the event that two candidates of the same party are chosen for the general election, there’s a strong chance that turnout will sharply decline as voters from the other party decide it’s not worth the time.

There are other problems that come when you eliminate the party primary, forcing voters to make multiple tactical and strategic choices lest they produce bizarre and indefensible outcomes. In highly competitive elections, split votes can send candidates to the general election without anything close to majority support. A candidate who wins 25 percent of the vote in a crowded race can advance as long as she has outperformed her competitors, even if she was explicitly opposed by the other 75 percent of voters. It’s also possible for Republicans to work strategically to choose Democratic candidates and vice versa, undermining the party system itself.

Given the historic strength of anti-party feeling, and the rhetoric of some reformers, this may have been the point: to damage political parties to the point that they are unable to function as designed.

But it’s difficult to imagine a workable democracy without parties. Parties, notes political scientist Seth Masket in The Inevitable Party, “establish grounds for debate, enable constructive criticism of a ruling regime, provide voters with policy alternatives, imbue elections with meaning, and allow for greater public involvement in the political system.” Or, to use E.E. Schattschneider’s formulation in the influential Party Government: “Modern democracy is unthinkable save in terms of the parties.”

Political parties are not above critique and reform. But effective change begins with reality: As long as we have democracy, we will have parties and they will continue to do the vital work of mobilizing voters, organizing elections, and running government. The question, for those who value democracy, is how to make them—and the institutions of American government at large—more fair, more responsive, and more accountable to the needs of the public.