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California's Unusual Primary System


Tuesday's primary election in California has political watchers riveted not just because of what's on the ballot but also because of the state's unusual primary system - the jungle primary. As Capital Public Radio's Ben Adler reports from Sacramento, the state is split on whether or not it's working.

BEN ADLER, BYLINE: It's called the jungle primary for a reason. Republicans are at risk of being shut out of California's races for governor and U.S. Senate on Tuesday, and Democrats could face the same fate in several congressional races seen as crucial to retaking the House all because voters approved Proposition 14 back in 2010.


ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER: It will give power back to the people.

ADLER: That was then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger taking a victory lap on the steps of the state Capitol in Sacramento the day after the measure passed. It created a system similar to what's used in Louisiana, Washington and Nebraska. Every voter gets the same primary ballot with all the candidates on it. And the top two finishers in each race, regardless of political party, move on to the general election.


SCHWARZENEGGER: The Republican party and the Democratic party despised this. Why? Because it takes power away from them and gives it back to the people.

ADLER: Eight years later, they're still ticked off. A New York Times article last week quoted the House majority leader, California's Kevin McCarthy, as saying, "I hate the top-two." And the current California Democratic Party, Chairman Eric Bauman, calls it the worst election reform the state has ever adopted.


ERIC BAUMAN: It was sold to the public that it would moderate our legislature and our congressional delegation. It has not done that. And in point of fact, it has often had the opposite effect.

ERIC MCGHEE: You know, the evidence is kind of mixed.

ADLER: Eric McGhee with the Public Policy Institute of California has studied the system since its inception. He says voters, especially independents who register here as no party preference, have more choices now. That was one of Proposition 14 supporters' main arguments.

MCGHEE: But, you know, there are some other things that they argued that really haven't come to pass. The turnout really isn't higher. We don't see a lot more moderation, just a little bit. And some of it is caused by other things.

ADLER: Like other ballot measures that loosened term limits for state lawmakers and created a Citizens Redistricting Commission to squelch gerrymandering. But the system does have fans across the political spectrum. Allan Zaremberg heads the California Chamber of Commerce, which has used the system to elect more moderate Democrats to the state legislature.

ALLAN ZAREMBERG: I think we made the right decision at the time. And in hindsight, a number of years later, I still think it's the right decision.

ADLER: And freshman congressman Ro Khanna, a Silicon Valley Democrat, credits the top-two system for helping him defeat an eight-term incumbent.

RO KHANNA: I think it's fantastic because it gives independent voters a voice in the process. And my belief is the future of the progressive movement has to be a coalition between Democrats, independents, third-party candidates. And this top-two system does that.

ADLER: Still, there's evidence it's not working as designed. Supporters hoped that when, say, two Democrats advance to a general election, Republicans would pick the more moderate one. Instead, according to researcher Eric McGhee...

MCGHEE: A lot of Republicans, somewhere between a third and a half, just aren't going to vote in that race.

ADLER: Kim Alexander with the California Voter Foundation points out the state has churned through a lot of other primary systems.

KIM ALEXANDER: And, you know, what I really wish is that we would just stick with something for a while and let voters get used to it.

ADLER: Polls suggest voters like the top-two system as it enters its fourth election cycle with Tuesday's primaries, even though Alexander says they may still be figuring it out. For NPR News, I'm Ben Adler in Sacramento. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.