California’s new primary election system fails to boost turnout

Although a goal of California’s new primary election system was to get more voters to the polls, the first test of the new rules two years ago failed to do that, a new report shows.

More independent voters showed up, and California’s primary turnout is still among the highest in the nation. But contrary to some expectations, even online registration and same-day registration aren’t likely to increase participation in the state’s primaries, according to the report by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California.

“Reform efforts to increase turnout may not prove particularly effective, but the top-two primary does appear to have already encouraged more independents to vote in legislative and congressional contests,” PPIC research fellow Eric McGhee said in a statement released Wednesday with the report.

McGhee’s analysis, which comes about a month before the June 3 state primary, examined the 2012 vote and earlier elections in California and elsewhere.

California voters authorized the new system, which places all candidates, regardless of any party affiliation, on a single ballot in state and congressional contests. All voters, including those with no party affiliation, choose among all candidates, and only the two competitors who win the most votes advance to the fall general election.


The party primary system remains in place in elections for president.

“Many had hoped that the additional choices offered to voters in the top-two system would encourage participation in primary elections. Instead,” the report found, “turnout in the June 2012 primary was one of the lowest on record” even though there was a presidential election, which typically spurs more people to vote.

That may have been partly because both the Democratic and Republican nominees for president were largely decided before California’s primary occurred, the author suggested.

Independent voters historically have made up just a sliver of the primary electorate. But the 2012 election, which first tested the new system statewide, “did appear to get independents to cast more votes for the races other than president,” the report found.

“The true effect of the open primary in California will likely grow clearer as voters become more familiar with the reform and campaign consultants find better ways to mobilize voters under the new system,” the report said.

Two additional efforts to boost voting — online registration and same-day registration — have not made a difference, the research found.

Those changes are just getting off the ground in California. But based on an analysis of their effects in other states, the report said, “it seems doubtful that the new reforms will significantly increase California’s primary election turnout.”

The study also highlighted the contrast between primary and general electorates and the increased influence of first-round voters in shaping the general election ballot. Primary electorates are generally older, more conservative, more Republican and less likely to be Latino or Asian American than those who turn out for general elections.

And the new system “winnows the field much more aggressively than the old system,” the report said.

The Legislature’s decision to shift most ballot measures to the fall may further dampen primary turnout, the report said.