Proposition 14, the Top Two Primaries Act, is making a difference in California politics

The Top Two Primaries Act is making a difference in California

Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.
The New York Times' article on October 18, “California Sees Gridlock Ease in Governing,” credited California's Proposition 14 as one of the reasons that the state has moved away from gridlock and toward a more functional government. Read it at

We have less than one rotation of the Earth before the November 2014 election. And, because of term limits, the November election will create new political heavenly bodies in the California Senate and Assembly. State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg is moving on, and Democratic State Assemblymen Roger Dickinson and Richard Pan are competing to replace him.

There has been much political stargazing as everyone tries to figure out the best way to keep their political planets in orbit after the next election. However, Proposition 14, the Top Two Primaries Act passed by voters in June 2010, has changed the political reality. This reform requires that the top-two primary vote-getters, regardless of political affiliation, run against each other in the November general election.

Since nearly all Assembly and Senate districts are either heavily Democratic or heavily Republican, in the past, the primary election would usually determine the winner. This meant that unaffiliated and minority party voters had no say in the election. Now they do.

This reform has also significantly weakened well-financed special interests, such as the gun lobby, the trial lawyers and the teachers’ union. Under the old system, a special interest would regularly fund a primary candidate against any public official who voted against them. The fear of this threat caused many legislators to cater to special interests. But now, even if a special-interest lobby finances an opposition candidate in the primary, a legislator can often still make it into the general election.

And this reform is making a difference. In the last general election, 19 out of 80 Assembly seats had runoffs between two members of the same party—12 Democrats and seven Republicans. In order to win the election, these candidates had to adjust their platforms to appeal to voters outside of their party.

This reform has attracted national attention. The New York Times recently ran an article comparing California’s productive legislative session to the gridlock mess in Washington, D.C. The Times quoted one political expert as saying, “You see Republicans voting for immigration reform, you see Democrats voting for streamlining environmental regulations.”

Much of this comes down to political calculation. Take the anticipated upcoming race with Assemblymen Dickinson and Pan, running for the same state Senate race. They are in a Democratic district with 49 percent Democrats, 26 percent Republicans and 25 percent unaffiliated and minority-party voters.

Before Proposition 14, the primary election would determine the winner. But now, it is highly likely that both Dickinson and Pan will make the runoff in November. This means that both candidates need to craft their message to appeal to Republicans and independent voters if they want to win the election.

So now, one Earth rotation away from the November election, the candidates are adjusting their campaign strategies to the new reality.