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Top-two voting is undemocratic, but Californians say they support it. They should give other systems a try

Top-two voting is undemocratic, but Californians say they support it. They should give other systems a try
Voters cast their ballots at a polling station in Venice on Nov. 5, 2016. (Los Angeles Times)

In the allegory of the cave, Plato posits a dark cave where prisoners are chained facing a wall, neither able to move nor turn their heads. Behind them are puppeteers they cannot see, and behind those puppeteers is a great fire. The prisoners’ only reality is the puppet shadows on the wall in front of them.

Such is the state of California politics, where we are limited by the narrow constructs of our single-seat, winner-take-all electoral system, and can’t see political possibilities beyond it.

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For Plato, enlightenment came when prisoners left the cave and saw things in greater light. What could California see if we left our electoral cave?

Voters want more options

In “The major parties just aren't cutting it for California voters,” the Los Angeles Times reported on a recent Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) that showed majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents all want a “third party.” But California’s top-two, single-seat, winner-take-all electoral system mostly prevents the state’s already ballot-qualified “third” parties (Green, Libertarian, American Independent and Peace and Freedom) from even appearing on the general election ballot.

At the same time, according to the PPIC poll, top two remains popular among voters. Therefore, The Times concludes, “Assuming that Californians don't want to revisit the [election] rules, they'll have to find a way to change the major political parties themselves — a tough task when confidence is already so low.”

But this assumes voters can never be told what exists outside the cave: multi-party democracies elected from multi-seat districts by proportional representation.

Maybe the problem is how we ask the question

When the state Legislature placed top two on the June 2010 ballot, its official label, title and summary were highly contested. According to contemporaneous reporting in The Times, “The legislative counsel wrote the Prop. 14 language with aides to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who strongly supports” the ballot measure.

The official language promised greater voter participation, but omitted that political parties, independents and write-in candidates would lose their guaranteed rights to be on the general election ballot. Opponents challenged this exclusion in court. "If they get their language, we lose the election,” a Prop. 14 strategist was quoted as saying.

The courts determined they had authority only to change what was false and misleading, but not to ensure objectivity. Therefore language about greater voter participation was softened, but the omission of other key information was allowed to stand.

For Plato, enlightenment came when prisoners left the cave and saw things in greater light.  What could California see if we left our electoral cave?


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In Arizona and Oregon, voters rejected top two when the official ballot language mentioned the elimination of party primaries and the reduction in general election options. What kind of wording did the PPIC use to poll support for top two? Language mirroring California’s.

Asking the right question

What if voters were instead asked, “How would you feel about a system where voters receive representation in proportion to their number, and are able to vote to elect someone who truly represents their views?” That question would probably poll pretty well. It also describes legislative election by proportional representation.

What if voters were also asked, "How about being able to rank candidates in single-seat races rather than be limited to voting for only one, so you can support candidates you like most without helping elect the ones you dislike?” That question, which would probably poll well, describes ranked-choice voting for single-seat, executive office.

Leaving the cave

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What really needed changing in California was our single-seat, winner-take-all system that limited our votes. Top two promised to fix that, but it really just kept a fundamentally undemocratic system in place — and in many ways it made things worse.

Abandoning top two and moving to legislative elections by proportional representation and choosing executives with ranked-choice voting could address multiple problems flowing from our current system: the lack of real choice in the general election, inadequate representation, gerrymandering, vote-splitting and voter turnout.

We are vexed by these issues today, because we aren’t thinking outside the cave. But no one shackles us inside the cave but ourselves.

Michael Feinstein is a former Santa Monica mayor and City Council member, a co-founder of the Green Party of California and a 2018 candidate for California secretary of state.

This piece is part of Blowback, our online forum for rebuttals to The Times. If you would like to write a full-length response to a recent Times article, editorial or Op-Ed and would like to participate in Blowback, here are our FAQs and submission policy.

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