HJR12 Passes Committee Vote

The New Mexico open primaries legislation HJR12 passed a vote today at the State Legislature (1/30/2016) in the Government, Elections & Indian Affairs Committee. One step closer to open primaries in New Mexico!

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HJR12 Open Primaries committee vote Friday, Jan 29 at 8:30AM

New Mexico Representative Moe Maestas just introduced legislation to bring nonpartisan elections to the state. Currently, 240,000 registered voters in New Mexico are denied their right to cast a vote in primary elections; yet these elections are paid for with their tax dollars. It’s a violation of their rights, but you could do something about it.

Here’s how you can help: Call a legislator and make a difference.

There is an important committee vote on Friday, January 29th. If the bill passes, those 240,000 New Mexican voters will be one step closer to having a real voice in our elections. But, the members of the committee don’t know that New Mexicans care. We need you to call them and let them know.

It would only take a minute, but your call could literally make the difference between passing or failing. Just click the link below to take action. When you speak to the legislator, tell them that you are supporting Representative Maestas’s bill, HJR12 so that 240,000 New Mexican voters can cast a vote in elections that their tax dollars are paying for.

Click here if you agree that denying voters of their voice is wrong.


Again: The committee will vote on the bill on Friday, Jan 29 @ 8:30AM

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Crum vs. Duran et al - Court of Appeals

Here is a link to a PDF containing the Crum vs. Duran Et Al filing with the New Mexico Court of Appeals.

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NMOP President on Morning Brew

New Mexico Open Primaries President Bob Perls on The Morning Brew

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End Of Year Tax Planning

December 16, 2015


Dear Friends, 

Many of us share the frustration of political gridlock and rising apathy in our increasingly partisan system.  We are a part of a political process and system that is broken and gives us few options.

New Mexico Open Primaries advocates for nonpartisan primary elections so that independents, minor parties and everyone else can vote in every election.  Candidates are selected to move to the general election with no labels on a nonpartisan basis. Candidates and elected officials have to reach out to the whole political spectrum to get elected and stay elected which means they need to forge coalitions and compromise to actually get things done

Three states have adopted nonpartisan primaries with the top two vote getters going to the general election.  We have seen partisan rancor reduced, increased voter enthusiasm and an improved legislative process where legislators work together.

New Mexico Open Primaries' commitment is to educate the public and to lead education campaigns to enact legislation that ensures that all can vote and have an impact on all elections.  The more diverse the participation, the more our representatives’ decisions will reflect the will of the people.

If you support this commitment and want to be a part of this movement we ask that you consider making a contribution to New Mexico Open Primaries.  Every dollar raised goes toward continuing to educate the public and elected officials about ways we can and must change our political system so that problems are solved, compromise is made and gridlock ends.

Please donate online by following the link here or make checks payable to:


644 Dixon Road

Corrales, NM  87048

If you have recently made a gift please accept our sincere thanks.

 Thank you for your support and have a happy holiday season.


Bob Perls


New Mexico Open Primaries

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Campaign Accountability is Just The Tip of The Iceberg

Op-Ed Albuquerque Journal

Regarding campaign accountability being as elusive as a piñata (September 20), I would

like your readers to consider a broader solution than Representative Madalena and the

Journal suggested, which is to audit 100 percent of all campaign reports. Going back to

the 1980s there have been calls for an independent ethics commission that could be

tasked with these kinds of reviews. They would be non-partisan and independent. The

appointment process could be worked out just as 42 other states have. Yes, we are one of

only eight states without one and we need one.

But, let’s look at the broader issue. Why is the Secretary of State a partisan office? Is

there anything about that office that seems like it should be partisan? Is there a

conservative or liberal approach evident when it comes to oversight and regulation of the

election system? I think not. How about we make it a non-partisan office along with

judges and law enforcement like many other states?

But hold on. If you follow the logic that the Secretary of State, judges and law

enforcement are not inherently or should not be partisan offices, then take that logic one

step further. Are there any benefits to any offices being partisan? Doesn’t it seem that

hyper-partisanship is the root cause of much of our political gridlock and dysfunction? I

am all for people banding together with like-minded people for a cause. God knows we

need more activism in this country since most people are so frustrated with politics they

checked out a long time ago. But it is high time that we take a step back and ask

ourselves if partisan elections and partisan office holders serve us well. How incumbents

creating their own districts year after year serves the public is beyond me. That is

another function that should be taken over by a non-partisan re-districting commission.

Former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley once said that the parties’ main function in modern

politics is to raise money and funnel it to true believers. This reinforces the left-right

divide fracturing our country.

You should not have to join a party to vote, but right now you have to if you want to vote

in the primaries. New Mexico Open Primaries (nmopenprimaries.org) is a new non-

profit that advocates for non-partisan primary elections so that independents, minor

parties and everyone else can vote in every election. Candidates are selected to move to

the general election with no labels on a non-partisan basis. Candidates and elected

officials have to reach out to the whole political spectrum to get elected and stay elected

which means they need to forge coalitions and compromise to actually get things done.

Three states have adopted non-partisan primaries with the top two vote getters going to

the general election and it has reduced partisan rancor, increased voter enthusiasm and

improved the legislative process so that legislators actually work together to get things

done or they don’t get re-elected.

New Mexico has an ethics problem, but we also have a campaign finance problem, an

election system problem and a legislative process that works less well each year. The

2016 legislative session is the perfect time to pass these needed reforms so that we create

a trusted and functioning public election and legislative system of which hard working

New Mexicans can be proud.

Bob Perls

Founder, New Mexico Open Primaries

Former New Mexico State Representative


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OP-ED An Approach to Fixing the Political System


September 3, 2015


As a former Democratic New Mexico State Representative and former co-chair of a New Mexico state Democratic Convention (2000), I want to congratulate independent voter David Crum and his attorney, Ed Hollington, on taking the time to challenge New Mexico’s closed primary system. Their argument is persuasive; that a 1969 law enacted by the legislature that empowered the two major parties to run primary elections and allowed them to exclude those not registered to a major party is unconstitutional. This clearly conflicts with the New Mexico constitution’s Bill of Rights that affirms all eligible voters must be allowed to vote. They are appealing to a state appellate court and hopefully there will be a court decision soon.


I understand the old, tired argument that it is a Democratic and Republican primary-why shouldn’t the parties decide who can vote in their primaries? Beyond the argument that the Crum court case highlights, there is another reason why independents should be allowed to vote in all elections and why parties should not control public elections.


Tax dollars pay for primary elections and it is illegal (or should be once the courts catch up based on the New Mexico anti-donation clause) for public dollars to go to private associations (political parties are private clubs). We don’t tolerate it in any situation except the most important activity we do in our country-when we vote. Why have we privatized voting? The State should be running elections, not political parties. One should not have to join a political party to vote.


Since primary elections are paid for by the public through government funds, everyone must be allowed to participate or the government is violating the anti-donation clause of our state constitution by paying for a private association to run a private election. If the parties want to exclude non-party members, then they should pay for their own nominating process. If we want free and fair elections, then the State should pay them and allow all voters to vote in the first and second round elections.


Would we allow a Party caucus to decide how and when to fund the police? The jails? The forest service? Why do allow a private party to decide who can vote? Yes, the parties can decide who they want to represent them and then send that person into a first round vote (at the moment called a primary). However, they should have no right to control that first round vote.


A new non-profit, called New Mexico Open Primaries (www.nmopenprimaries.org), has been founded to educate New Mexico voters about the advantages of non-partisan primaries with the top two going to the general election. Nebraska, Washington and California have adopted such a system in the last few years and it is bringing an end to partisan gridlock, increasing voter turnout and rewarding coalition builders and problem solvers at the expense of divide and conquer, smear campaign strategies.


We also believe the district line drawing process should be removed from the political environment. It should not be up to incumbents to decide who their constituents will be. This results all too often in legislative districts that have little to do with communities of interest, and much to do with padding the incumbent’s re-election margins.


One of the most sacred tenets of our country is one person, one vote. By excluding independents and minor parties from voting in a primary election, this sacred tenet is violated. Non-partisan elections combined with non-partisan, independent redistricting commissions can increase voter confidence and participation while creating an environment for elected officials that rewards problem solving and reaching across the aisle.


Bob Perls

Founder, New Mexico Open Primaries

Former New Mexico State Representative

Corrales, NM



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Transformative Effects of Primary Reform in California.  New Mexico Next if Local Group Has Its Way.




National: Kellie Ryan

Communications Director


(646) 205-0293


New Mexico: Bob Perls

Founder, New Mexico Open Primaries





Transformative Effects of Primary Reform in California.  New Mexico Next if Local Group Has Its Way.


Open Primaries Details the Early Successes from California’s Adoption of a Top Two Nonpartisan Primary



New York, NY-August 19, 2015


In 2010, voters in California enacted a “Top Two” nonpartisan primary system, allowing all voters-whether registered to a party or not- to participate in primary elections. New Mexico Open Primaries is dedicated to making the same reform happen soon in New Mexico.


Open Primaries, a national leader on election reform, has released a new report outlining the deep and meaningful impact that this change has had on California politics.


A Quiet Revolution: The Early Success of California’s Top Two Nonpartisan Primary outlines the sea change in voter access and representation, competitive elections, and a new, more cooperative state legislature engaged in cross party dialogue.


The authors of the reform are Jason Olson, the President of Independentvoice.org, a San Francisco based organization of independent voters, and Dr. Omar Ali, a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and expert scholar on populist democracy movements.


Quantifying the performance of a state legislature is a notoriously difficult task. Performance is, by definition, subjective. We can assert that legislators who win office by building broad coalitions do the same once in office. An electoral system that incentivizes candidates to reach beyond the activist base of their own party produces similar behavior once in office.”


  • Jason Olson and Omar Ali, A Quiet Revolution: The Early Success of California’s Top Two Nonpartisan Primary


California used to be considered one of the most partisan political environments in the nation. Runaway deficits and gridlocked budgets were standard. A National Journal review of state governments named California among the most dysfunctional state governments in the United States.


Today, with significant reforms to their primary election system, California politics has been transformed.


Key Findings


The report finds that California, as a result of adoption of a top two nonpartisan primary elections system, now has:


  • More Competitive Elections: Only two State Assembly and Congressional incumbents were unseated during the entire decade of 2000-2009, and both were under criminal investigation. Today, under the top two system, California elections are the most competitive in the nation.


  • Increased Voter Access: Independent voters, 25% of the California electorate, can now vote in the first round. Voters registered with a political party have more choice as they can choose from candidates from all parties, not just their own. Third party candidates and third party voters are no longer excluded from the first round of elections, in which the vast majority of races were decided. African American and Latinos—who are increasingly independent—have increased their representation and voice in the state legislature.


  • Functioning Legislature: The polarization in Sacramento has dissipated. Legislators, who win office by building broad coalitions, are capable of reaching across the aisle once elected. Regular balanced budgets have returned. Reforms in education financing, immigration, and gun control, reforms that would have previously provoked partisan intransigence, have been enacted.


The success of Top Two in California, coupled with similar successes in Washington and Nebraska and the growth of independent voters (43% in the latest Gallup poll), have contributed to the growth of the primary reform movement nationally. Activists in Alaska, Arizona, South Dakota, and Florida are working to place nonpartisan primary measures directly on the ballot. Legislators and Secretaries of State in Mississippi, Illinois, New Mexico and Oklahoma are working to advance legislation for open primaries.


The full report is available at: http://www.openprimaries.org/research_california




Available for Interview


Jason Olson co-author of A Quiet Revolution (based in San Francisco)

Omar Ali, co-author of A Quiet Revolution (based in North Carolina)

John Opdycke, President of Open Primaries (based in New York City)

Bob Perls, Founder, New Mexico Open Primaries (based in Corrales, NM)




About Open Primaries


Open Primaries is a national, nonprofit 501(c)(4) organization working to enact open and nonpartisan primary systems, counter efforts to impose closed primaries, educate voters, train and support spokespeople, and participate in the building of local, state and national open primaries coalitions. Open Primaries is a movement of diverse Americans who believe in a simple, yet radical idea: no American should be required to join a political party to exercise their right to vote.


More information about Open Primaries, its mission and work, can be found at www.openprimaries.org


More information about NMOP can be found at http://www.nmopenprimaries.org



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New Mexico Open Primaries Board Meeting Minutes 7/26/2015




07/26/15 3:00 p.m.



2309 Renard Place, Albuquerque, New Mexico



Bob Perls, Bill Adkison, Sarah Cobb, George Richmond, Eddy Aragon, and Ed Hollington


Absent: Barry Bitzer



David Walker, Ben Blackwell, and David Nelson


Call to Order by Bob Perls at 3:00 p.m., MDT.



A quorum was present.






1. The bylaws of the New Mexico Open Primaries, a New Mexico non-profit corporation were presented to the Board of Directors and upon a motion duly made and seconded, the bylaws were unanimously adopted.


2. Election of Officers


The following officers were unanimously elected by the Board of Directors:


i. Bob Perls, President

ii. J. Edward Hollington, Secretary

iii. George Richmond, Treasurer.


Bob Perls, President, presided over the Board of Directorsmeeting.


3. Finances


President Perls presented a report of income and expenses to date and a motion was duly made and seconded and by unanimous vote approval was given to reimburse the President for expenses which were incurred by the President on behalf of the corporation.


Treasurer Richmond presented a form of Tax Deductible letter to be provided to contributors and also reported that he would contact a CPA regarding the time requirements for completing a 501[c][3] application with the IRS.


4. Volunteer Coordinator

A motion was made and seconded and by unanimous vote, Sarah Cobb was appointed to serve as Volunteer Coordinator.


5. Meeting adjourned at 3:35 p.m. The Board of Directors adjourned to convene a general membership meeting in addition to the Board of Directors being present, David Walker, Ben Blackwell, and David Nelson, general members, were also present for discussions regarding the mission, goals, and objectives. Messaging were discussed with excellent input from Board of Directors and general members. The Mission Statement was reviewed and discussed and revisions will be made by the President as discussed with the goal of keeping the message simple and non-confrontational. It was also agreed that for the time being, the President will be the official spokesman on behalf of the corporation.


6. Opportunities for speaking engagements were discussed and it was agreed that Sarah Cobb would assist in the vettingprocess for speaking engagements for the President.


7. The meeting of the Board of Directors reconvened at 4:15 p.m.


8. Business Plan


President Perls discussed the need for a detailed business plan and provided a template Business Plan that had been provided by John Opdycke, of the National Open Primaries organization. The President explained a business plan was necessary and helpful in soliciting contributions, especially from foundations. Board member Aragon graciously volunteered to take the lead in preparing a business plan. Board member Adkison emphasized the importance of establishing a 3-month, 6-month, and 12-month organizational plans with objectives.


Treasurer Richmond provided a hand-out from Fair Vote organization and prompted a general discussion about association with other organizations, particularly national organizations involved in similar open primary projects. It was agreed that communications with those organizations could be an important resource and should be continued.


9. Crum vs. Secretary of State - lawsuit


This lawsuit is to declare closed primaries unconstitutional. Secretary Hollington gave an update on the case explaining the district court judge had ruled against Plaintiff Crum but in doing so, had failed to address the constitutional arguments. This case is now before the NM Court of Appeals. Secretary Hollington will provide copies of the brief filed in the NM Court of Appeals to all board members and has volunteered to make himself available for any questions and more detailed explanations when needed about the lawsuit.



10. Outreach and marketing


Board members and general members in attendance engaged extensive discussions regarding outreach including reviewing the website, giving constructive criticism, and hosting private home/open primary neighborhood meetings. It was also agreed the corporation should extend outreach to involve more diverse members. President Perls presented handouts which his wife produced and various comments and suggestions were made regarding messaging and it was agreed that having handouts, particularly when attending neighborhood meetings, and giving talks would be very beneficial.



The next meeting of the Board of Directors is scheduled for September 9, 2015 at 6:00 p.m. at a restaurant to be announced.



Upon a motion duly made and seconded, and by unanimous vote of the Board of Directors, the meeting was adjourned at 5:05 p.m.





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“A Quiet Revolution”

The National Open Primaries organization (http://www.openprimaries.org/) just released a study:


“A Quiet Revolution” 

The Early Success of California’s Top Two Nonpartisan Primary

By Jason D. Olson, Founder of IndependentVoice.org and Omar H. Ali, P.hD., Associate Professor at University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

The full text can be found here and downloaded as a PDF  from the OpenPrimaries.org website.

The following is the text, courtasy of OpenPrimaries.org the original can be found by following this link.



The enactment of the Top Two Nonpartisan Primary in California has had three significant consequences since it went into effect in 2012:

1) More competitive elections. California elections are now the most competitive in the nation, with a record number of incumbents defeated under the new system. Additionally, the nonpartisan nature of Top Two has created competition even in districts where one major party holds a significant advantage over the other with the introduction of “same-party races”.

2) All voters have the right to equal participation. Under the old partisan system, nearly 80% of California’s legislative and Congressional races were decided in the primary. This discouraged participation from or outright excluded voters not associated with the majority party of their district. Under the new system, all voters now have full access to both the first and final round of the election process. This has forced candidates to appeal beyond their party’s base.

3) A functional legislature. California is no longer a national symbol for legislative dysfunction. Members of the legislature, who must now be elected by building diverse coalitions of voters rather than toeing the party line, head to Sacramento incentivized to continue similar outreach while in office.

We believe that the rapid and transformative impact of Top Two in California can serve as a blueprint for others looking to reduce legislative dysfunction and voter disengagement. 







Graphic_Two2.jpgCalifornia voters enacted comprehensive campaign finance and disclosure regulations in 1974 after the Watergate scandal.[1] While these regulations provided voters, academics, and journalists with a comprehensive view of the individuals and organizations funding electoral activity in California, they did not prevent or diminish the “partisanization” of the political and legislative environment. To the contrary, by 2009, California’s legislature was ranked among the most dysfunctional in the nation and voter approval was in the teens. 

Still, members of the legislature enjoyed a very high incumbency return rate. Party leaders used a complicated system of gerrymandering and semi-closed partisan primaries to ensure that incumbents were guaranteed reelection and would vote the party line.

Seeking an answer to partisan tensions and gridlock in the 1990s, Californians had enacted a blanket primary measure via ballot in 1996. The blanket primary allowed all voters to participate in any party primary race.[2] However in 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the blanket primary design ruling that parties, as private entities, had a right to exclude non-party members from participating in their nominating process.

After the blanket primary was dismantled in 2000, public confidence in the state’s governing institutions plummeted. The impact was negative and far reaching.[3] There were protracted budget battles, near government shutdowns, and other crises manufactured for partisan gain. During this time, elections were largely noncompetitive. Only two incumbents in the entire state were defeated in all elections between 2002 and 2010.[4] The legislature’s public approval rating sunk to a record low of 14% by 2010.[5]

In 2003, California voters revolted. In that year, Governor Gray Davis was recalled. He was replaced by the iconoclastic and nonpartisan Arnold Schwarzenegger. A broad left/right reform coalition evolved to eliminate the structural partisanship built into the electoral system. This coalition remade California politics by creating a nonpartisan and fully independent redistricting commission and enacting a nonpartisan Top Two primary.[6]

The Top Two Nonpartisan Primary coalition included independent voter associations, business leaders, the AARP, Chamber of Commerce, Common Cause, issue advocacy organizations, philanthropists and reform-minded elected officials—most notably State Controller Steve Westly, Governor Schwarzenegger, Lt. Governor Abel Maldonado, and former Assemblyman Steve Peace. These disparate forces came together to bring a constitutionally sound open primary system back to California. They recruited nationally known constitutional scholars and election law experts, studied the Supreme Court’s decision, and drafted a new open primary initiative to meet the Court’s specific tests.

In 2010, despite being opposed by every political party in California, the California Top Two Primaries Act (Proposition 14) passed with 54% of the vote.[7] The state has used the system to conduct all statewide and congressional elections since 2012.






Graphic_Three2.jpgPrior to the implementation of Top Two nonpartisan primaries, California was considered one of the most partisan political environments in the nation. Runaway deficits and gridlocked budgets were standard. Lawmakers brave enough to work across party lines found a system rigged against them.

When former Assemblymembers Joe Canciamilla, a Democrat, and Keith Richman, a Republican, established a bipartisan working group to discuss solutions for pressing problems facing the state, they were forced to meet in secret. Members of the group refused to publicly acknowledge their participation in the effort for fear of retribution from party leadership. The working group was ultimately forced to dissolve.[8]



Partisan Dysfunction in the Legislature . . .

The performance of the legislature was described by analysts and the general public as dysfunctional and extremely partisan:

  • A 2005 Government Performance Project of the Pew Charitable Trust graded the California government a “C-minus;” the lowest grade in the nation.[9]
  • A 2009 National Journal review of state governments named California among the most dysfunctional state governments.[10]
  • In 2010, the California State Legislature broke a record for consecutive days without a budget and missed its constitutional budget deadline in 16 of the previous 20 years, largely due to partisans acting as a bloc to take advantage of the state’s two-thirds budget requirement.[11]
  • The 2010 legislature had a record-low 14% public approval rating and record-high 72% disapproval rating.[12]
  • An analysis of the 2011-2012 State Legislature, the last elected under the old system, showed that Democratic officials voted “the party line” 99% of the time while Republican officials similarly took a partisan position 94% of the time.[13]


. . . Caused by Partisan Control of Elections

Under the old system, partisan gerrymandering and long-term demographic shifts had solidified most of California’s election districts as one-party districts. For instance, in 2010, 79% of the members of the California Legislature and the California Congressional delegation did not face competitive November elections.[14] This meant that once the candidate of the dominant major party in a district won their primary, which under the old system was limited primarily to members of their own party, they did not face a real challenge in the November election.

Essentially, in realpolitik terms, 79% of California elected officials won office without having to communicate with voters outside of their own party. Furthermore, this led to a system that incentivized toeing “the party line” over what was best for all voters. This was a structural flaw – not a personal failing on behalf of individual elected officials. 





Graphic_Four2.jpgSince enacting the Top Two primary system, political observers around the country have been impressed with the relative lack of acrimony in California’s legislature, compared with both Congress and California's own recent history. As we will discuss later, the state has passed balanced budgets on time in each year since 2012 and has enacted legislation on issues that previously would have triggered partisan intransigence. Such issues include education financing, immigration, and gun control.[15]

What changed? In a word, “competition.” California’s legislature transformed because a growing number of its members are elected in competitive elections. This may sound like a trivial point. It is not.


Under Top Two California Boasts Most Competitive Elections in America

An annual study by the Lucy Burns Institute of all state legislative elections in the country from 2008 to 2014 shows California as the most competitive for the 2012-2014 period and shows a 25% increase in competition over California’s 2010 score (the last year of partisan elections), which ranked the state ninth.[16]

Analyzing elections based on the margin of victory also shows a dramatic increase in electoral competitiveness. The number of races deemed “close,” with a margin of victory of less than 5%, increased from less than 3% in 2010 to about 10% in both 2012 and 2014. Races deemed “competitive,” with a margin of victory between 5% and 10%, more than doubled from 4% in 2010 to 8.5% in both 2012 and 2014.


competitiveelections.jpg Source: Statewide Election Results for 2010, 2012, and 2014, California Secretary of State


Moreover “blowouts,” races with margins of victory of more than 20% and uncontested races, decreased significantly from 79% in 2010 to 56% in 2012 and to 63% in 2014.[17] Similarly, a Public Policy Institute of California study of the 2012 election found a significant increase in competitiveness—especially among Congressional races.[18]

Today, approximately 50% of all races in California are competitive.[19] The legislature is filled with elected officials who have, by virtue of the design of the Top Two system which allows all voters to participate in both the primary and the general election, built broad coalitions in order to win their seats.


Record Number of Incumbents Defeated Under Top Two


The switch from semi-closed, partisan primaries to Top Two nonpartisan primaries has led to a dramatic increase in the number of unseated incumbent elected officials.

Under California’s old partisan system, only two incumbents were defeated in all State Legislative and Congressional elections between 2002 and 2010 (five election cycles). The “unlucky” two included Democratic Congressman Gary Condit, who was caught up in the Chandra Levy murder investigation in 2002, and Republican Congressman Richard Pombo who was caught up in the 2006 Jack Abramoff bribery scandal. During this period in California, unless they were being investigated for murder or caught in a national bribery scandal, a political incumbent’s chance of re-election was 100%.

The implementation of Top Two saw incumbents defeated in record numbers. In 2012, 10 incumbents lost their reelection bids, including Pete Stark, who was unseated by fellow Democrat Eric Swalwell in a same-party general election. He had never once faced a competitive November re-election during his nearly 40 years in Congress. In 2014, another four incumbents were defeated.[20] In addition, many long serving incumbents retired ahead of the 2012 elections rather than face the new political landscape.[21]


Source: Statewide Election Results for 2002-2014, California Secretary of State


Top Two “Same Party” Races Bring Competition to Formerly Noncompetitive Districts

Same-party races, a new feature under Top Two, also significantly increased competitiveness by introducing actual contests in districts where one major party holds a significant advantage over the other (e.g., election districts in the largely Democrat- held San Francisco Bay Area). Ironically, while opponents of Top Two often point to same-party races as evidence of a lack of competition under the system, same-party races actually produced 50% of the total incumbent defeats from 2012 to 2014 and forced many formerly “safe” elected officials to face legitimate challenges.

Under the old partisan system, election districts controlled by a single political party (a significant number under the previously gerrymandered 2001 district boundaries) produced completely noncompetitive general elections and effectively sidelined any voter not registered with that majority party. Under the new Top Two system, election districts with high Democratic or Republican voter registration now have a significant chance of producing a general election between two candidates of the dominant party, thus forcing those candidates to reach beyond their party’s base and speak to all the voters.

 The results have been dramatic. In 2012, incumbents in districts dominated by one party were more than twice as likely to face an intra-party challenge than in prior elections when a closed primary system was in place.[22] In 2012, there were 28 same-party general elections in California (18.3% of all U.S. House and State Legislative races) and same-party general elections accounted for six out of the ten incumbents defeated that year.[23] According to the Public Policy Institute of California, all but one of the same-party general election races occurred in districts that were unlikely to have hosted competitive races in the past.[24] In 2014, there were 25 same-party general elections in California (16.3%), and they accounted for one of the four incumbents defeated.[25]

Opponents of the Top Two nonpartisan primary point to the races illustrated above and the growing number of Democrat-on-Democrat and Republican-on-Republican general elections as evidence that Top Two restricts voter choice. They assert that a general election in which the two candidates are registered members of the same party is, by definition, restrictive. This is false and misleading. In fact, the incumbency rates previously cited show that under the old system, the Democrat vs. Republican general elections in the vast majority of California legislative districts were the very definition of restrictive and noncompetitive. Same-party general elections actually allow the voters, rather than party insiders, to decide who represents a particular district.

Same-party contests of this kind also demand more from the electorate. The California Journal of Politics and Policy notes that Internet searches about candidates on Google increased 15% in areas with same-party races. The researchers concluded that without the ability to rely solely on party identification, “many California residents subsequently searched online for additional information.”[26]





While the old, partisan system was highly restrictive in terms of which voters were able to cast meaningful votes, Top Two has expanded that universe to include all voters. This is especially impactful as the number of independent voters (called “No Party Preference”) continues to overtake both major parties in total share of the electorate.[27] Close to 43% of Americans currently self-identify as independent.[28]

The percentage of California voters that identify as independent has been rising steadily for the last fifteen years. In 2007, independent voters comprised 18% of the California electorate. Today, they represent close to 25%.[29] The growth of minority voters identifying as independent has followed a similar course with the fastest growth among Latinos; 17% of Latino voters now identify as independent.[30]

Under the old system, these voters were second-class citizens. Their tax dollars were used to conduct semi-closed primary elections that they, themselves, could neither participate in, or faced significant hurdles to do so.[31] In practice, only major-party voters living in a district that their party controlled could have a meaningful vote. Major party voters “marooned” in districts controlled by the opposite party, as well as third party voters, almost never had a meaningful opportunity to participate under the old system.

All voters in California are now able to participate meaningfully, whether they opt to join a political party or not. Every voter has access to the primary round where the issues are often shaped and the two front runners are selected. Every voter can select from among all the candidates, not just members of their own party. Voters are afforded general elections which are increasingly competitive. Moreover, the votes of independents and minority party members matter in ways that they did not before because all voters are able to join the political conversation during the first round.






Two vivid examples of Top Two’s dramatic impact are the 2012 election between Democratic incumbent Michael Allen and Democrat Marc Levine, vying for the 10th Assembly District seat in Marin County, and in the 2015 special election between Democrats Steve Glazer and Susan Bonilla for the 7th State Senate District seat in the East San Francisco Bay Area.


2012 Assembly District 10: Incumbent Michael Allen (D) vs. Insurgent Marc Levine (D)

Under the old partisan system, incumbent Democrat Michael Allen would have been assured an easy general election victory against an “also-ran” Republican in his majority Democratic district in Marin County. Instead in 2012, under the new Top Two system, Allen found himself facing fellow Democrat Marc Levine in the general election. Levine had finished second in the primary. In addition to speaking to Democrats, Levine reached out to the independents and Republicans in his district; voters who had been ignored for the past decade. Allen conducted a highly partisan general election campaign by labeling Levine “not a real Democrat” for his outreach efforts among non-Democrats. Levine’s broad outreach proved the winning strategy. He was able to win the race by creating a coalition of Democrats, Republicans and independents.[32]


2015 Special Election: Steve Glazer (D) vs. party-endorsed Susan Bonilla (D)

The special election for State Senate District 7, located in the Democratic Party-dominated San Francisco Bay Area, produced a similar dynamic to the Levine vs. Allen race. The election featured a Top Two showdown between Democrat Steve Glazer and Democrat Susan Bonilla.[33] In the primary campaign, Glazer reached out to independents and Republicans, as well as Democrats while Bonilla campaigned exclusively to Democratic voters. After Bonilla and Glazer finished in the top two, Glazer increased his outreach to independents and Republicans by appealing as widely as possible. The State Democratic Party endorsed Bonilla. The party and select unions spent millions of dollars attacking Glazer as “not a real Democrat” for conducting a campaign designed to appeal to a diversity voters. Bonilla ran a traditional campaign designed primarily to appeal to the Democratic Party base, a strategy which would have been more than sufficient to assure her victory under the old system against an “also-ran” Republican challenger. Glazer won the race by 10 points.

Both these examples demonstrate that the Top Two primary system in California is offering candidates more independence from party leaders and more opportunities to build coalitions which not only win elections but better represent, and are more accountable to, the actual make-up of their districts. Neither major party has been immune from such forces; 2012 races for California State Assembly alone saw seven districts with Republican same-party races.[34]





Graphic_Five2.jpgThe impact of Top Two’s competitive elections and voter inclusion on the behavior of the State Legislature was immediate. While legislative performance is extremely difficult to quantify, political observers and legislators themselves have pointed to a number of examples of functional governance replacing partisan dysfunction. In addition to those examples and statements made by key political figures, the Legislature’s public approval ratings have soared.


Governance, Not Partisanship, in the Legislature 

The legislature that took office in January 2013, while two-thirds Democratic (California’s first two-thirds majority since 1933), was populated by many Democratic legislators who owed no debt to party insiders and special interest groups. Similarly, many Republicans in the chamber were, by virtue of the diverse coalitions they had constructed during their election campaigns, able to challenge their own party leadership and enter into issue-by-issue conversations and coalitions with their Democratic colleagues.

Quantifying the performance of a state legislature is a notoriously difficult task. “Performance” is, by definition, subjective. We can assert that legislators who win office by building broad coalitions do the same once in office. An electoral system that incentivizes candidates to reach beyond the activist base of their own party produces similar behavior once in office.

Without attempting to pass judgment on whether the bills passed by California’s new cooperative legislature are beneficial to the state (which is an ideological question) we can cite accomplishments noted by political observers and politicians as evidence of a new environment in the legislature. Some of these include:

  • Several legislators publicly broke with their party on critical votes. Democrat Marc Levine, who had defeated fellow Democratic incumbent Michael Allen in a same-party general election, angered environmentalists (a strong Democratic constituency) when he helped scuttle a measure that would have given the Coastal Commission authority to levy additional fines. Three Assembly Democrats broke with the labor unions when they voted against new regulations aimed at curtailing additional big box stores, defeating the measure.[35]
  • The California Legislature has met its Constitutional deadline for budget approval in each year under Top Two. While some might assert that is due to the lowering of the number of votes required to pass a budget, it should be noted that many government functions can be “hijacked” by partisans for partisan gain (for instance judicial and cabinet post approvals currently held up by Republicans in Congress), and that Top Two has removed both the incentive to do so as well as the power of the party leadership to command it because legislators must now answer to all voters.[36]
  • Republican State Senator Anthony Cannella put it bluntly when he stood with Democrats to co-sponsor legislation allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain drivers licenses. He remarked that the redistricting and nonpartisan election changes were freeing lawmakers from obedience to their party bases and allowing them to engage more broadly on specific issues. “It’s given more courage to my Republican colleagues,” he said. “They were afraid of getting primaried. Now, it’s not just their base they have to appeal to.”[37]


Legislature’s Public Approval Ratings Rebound

California’s new legislative environment, which is less partisan-controlled and more cooperative, has led to a dramatic increase in public approval ratings for its state legislature. Public approval has risen to its highest levels since 2001. So, while Congressional approval ratings among Californians remain low at 18% approval and 73% disapproval (virtually unchanged since 2010), 42% of Californians now approve of their state legislature (up from 14% in 2010) and 44% now disapprove (down from 72% in 2010).[38]



Source: Field Research Corporation, The Field Poll #2498 and #2500, February 21-25, 2015.


Current and Former Legislators See Top Two Change

In addition to Senator Canella, other members of the legislature, both past and present, have commented upon the culture change in Sacramento.

  • Assemblywoman Autumn Burke of the California Legislative Black Caucus, which has expanded its membership from eight to twelve under the Top Two primary system recently stated, “as challenging as the open primary system has been for many of us, it’s kept us in touch with our constituents.”[39]
  • Democratic Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins told one reporter that the combination of Top Two and term limits has created “wholehearted change in how the legislature is structured and comes together.”[40]
  • Legendary Democratic politician Willie Brown, the former Assembly Speaker and the 41st Mayor of San Francisco, declared Top Two a game-changer for the state. “Like it or not,” notes Brown, “the Glazer-Bonilla battle is likely to be the template for future elections statewide. The top-two primary system has taken elections out of the hands of party insiders and allowed competing Democrats and Republicans to strike out on their own to attract crossover voters.”[41]






Since Top Two’s implementation in the 2012 election cycle, California’s elections have (1) become the most competitive in the nation, (2) expanded the power of meaningful voting to all citizens, and (3) transformed the state’s once hostile partisan climate into one focused on functional governance. California’s Top Two experience offers a path forward to transform America’s partisan paralysis into a system focused on functional governance that benefits the people, not the political parties.

The increase in electoral competitiveness in California has been significant. Independent studies cite California’s elections as the most competitive in the nation; incumbents have been defeated in record numbers after decades of near-invulnerability; and same party races, despite being cited by opponents of Top Two as a sign of lack of competition, have empowered voters, especially those in election districts dominated by one party, compelling candidates to appeal to all voters. Moreover under Top Two, not only has California’s Legislative Black Caucus grown, but Latino voters, a growing number of whom are registered independents, now have full access to the electoral system.[42]

For those seeking a way forward from the partisanship and polarization that has enveloped Congress, state legislatures and the country as a whole, the early success of Top Two in California can serve as a national model. In a number of ways such structural political reform efforts are part of the nation’s long struggles, from the Populists, Women’s Suffragists, and Civil Rights activists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to expand democracy in the nation.[43]

The empowerment of all voters, particularly independents, to participate equally in the process has had profound effects on the state’s political culture. In several case studies, candidates in same party races who pursued strategies to engage all voters won significant victories over party endorsed candidates who conducted partisan campaigns. Voters, independents, and members of parties alike now have full access to the first round of elections and the opportunity to cast ballots in genuinely competitive contests in November.

The direct impact of increased electoral competitiveness and equal participation among all voters has changed the environment in the State Legislature. A number of examples have been cited by politicians and political observers as signs of governance winning out over partisanship: passage of on-time budgets, legislators breaking with their parties on key votes, and bipartisan measures to solve formerly intractable problems. In addition to the many current and former legislators commenting positively on the new environment, the legislature’s public approval ratings have significantly rebounded from their rock-bottom lows under the old partisan system to the highest level since 2001.

 In conclusion, it can be confidently asserted that the old system sent elected representatives to Sacramento and Washington with no incentive to cooperate with representatives from the opposing major party. The new system, by contrast, rewards candidates who build diverse coalitions during their election campaigns and who arrive in Sacramento and Washington with a mandate from their constituents to do more than toe the party line.

For Americans fed up with the partisan paralysis of their government, the Top Two Nonpartisan Primary offers real hope for the future. The early success of Top Two in California, what the San Francisco Chronicle has described as a “quiet revolution,” serves as an important model nationally to engage partisanship and government dysfunction.[44] However, given the degree of partisan control of government and the political parties’ hostility toward relinquishing their power to voters, it will require a concerted long-term effort to win this reform across the nation. The benefits of that labor, however, are promising.



jason.pngJason D. Olson is Director of IndependentVoice.Org and was a key leader in the passage of California’s Top Two Nonpartisan Primary (Proposition 14) in 2010. He was also instrumental in helping to pass redistricting reform (Proposition 11) in 2008 and (Proposition 20) in 2010 as part of a broad coalition. A graduate of the University of California at Santa Barbara, he is an op-ed writer and independent political analyst in California who has appeared on CNN, Fox News, and various California radio stations.




Omar.pngOmar H. Ali, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and serves on the national Board of Directors of IndependentVoting.org. A graduate of the London School of Economics and Political Science, he received his Ph.D. in History from Columbia University and is the author of In the Balance of Power: Independent Black Politics and Third Party Movements, described as a “landmark work” by the National Political Science Review. Ali has appeared on CNN and NPR.







[1] California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, “Campaign Finance and Lobbying Activities.” http://www.sos.ca.gov/campaign-lobbying/history-political-reform-division 

[2] Over 433,000 valid signatures were required to place the measure on the ballot. See California Constitution, Article II, Section 8 (b)

[3] “The State of California Voters”, Public Policy Institute of California, September, 2008.

[4] Statewide Election Results for 2002-2014, California Secretary of State.

[5] “Californians and their government”, Public Policy Institute of California, March, 2010.

[6] Closed primaries are part of several ways in which competition has been limited by party control of the electoral process through legal measures. For a detailed history and analysis of the structural barriers placed on voters, see Mickey Edwards, The Parties Versus the People (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012), Jacqueline S. Salit, Independents Rising: Outsider Movements, Third Parties, and the Struggle for a Post-Partisan America (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), and Omar H. Ali, In the Balance of Power: Independent Black Politics and Third-Party Movements in the United States (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2008).

[7] Statewide Election Results for 2002-2014, California Secretary of State.

[8] Daniel Weintrub, “Working across the Aisle: Stories from the California State House,” Saint Mary’s Magazine, June 30, 2011.

[9] Government Performance Project, “Grading the States 2005: A Look Inside,” Pew Charitable Trust, 2004-2006.http://www.pewtrusts.org/~/media/legacy/uploadedfiles/pcs_assets/2004-2006/GPPReport2005pdf.pdf

[10] Louis Jacobson, “The Six Most Dysfunctional State Governments,” National Journal, July 13, 2009.http://www.nationaljournal.com/njonline/the-six-most-dysfunctional-state-governments-20090713

[11] Chris Weigant, “'No Budget, No Pay' Works Once Again in California,” Huffington Post, June 16, 2014.

[12] "Californians and their government”, Public Policy Institute of California, March, 2010. 

[13] Phillip Reese, “California legislators rarely break from party line in floor votes,” Sacramento Bee, October 11, 2012.

[14] Statewide Election Results for 2002-2014, California Secretary of State.

[15] Chris Weigant, “'No Budget, No Pay' Works Once Again in California,” Huffington Post, June 16, 2014.

[16] Carl Klarner, "Democracy in Decline: the Collapse of the 'Close Race' in State Legislatures," Lucy Burns Institute, May 6, 2015.http://ballotpedia.org/Competitiveness_in_State_Legislative_Elections:_1972-2014

[17] Statewide Election Results for 2002-2014, California Secretary of State.

[18] "California's New Electoral Reforms: The Fall Election,” Public Policy Institute of California, November 2012.http://www.ppic.org/main/publication_show.asp?i=1039

[19] Statewide Election Results for 2002-2014, California Secretary of State.

[20] Statewide Election Results for 2002-2014, California Secretary of State.

[21] Michael B Marois, “California Nonpartisan Districting Ousts Life Incumbents,” Bloomberg, March 19, 2013.

[22] “Test-driving California's Election Reforms,” Public Policy Institute of California, September 2012.

[23] Statewide Election Results for 2002-2014, California Secretary of State.

[24] “California's New Electoral Reforms: The Fall Election,” Public Policy Institute of California, November 2012.http://www.ppic.org/main/publication_show.asp?i=1039

[25] Statewide Election Results for 2002-2014, California Secretary of State.

[26] Sinclair, Betsy; & Wray, Michael. (2015). Googling the Top Two: Information Search in California’s Top Two Primary. California Journal of Politics and Policyhttp://escholarship.org/uc/item/1fg8b858

[27] In 2010, the last year under which the old partisan primary system in California was in place, of the state’s approximately 17 million registered voters, around 44% were registered Democrat, 31% Republican, 20% independent (previously termed “Decline to State”), and 5% third party voters. “Report of Registration–October 18, 2010,” California Secretary of State.http://www.sos.ca.gov/elections/report-registration/15day-gen-10/

[28] Jeffrey M. Jones, “In U.S., New Record 43% Are Political Independents,” Gallup, January 7, 2015.

[29] California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, Odd-Numbered Year Report of Registration, February 10, 2015.http://elections.cdn.sos.ca.gov/ror/ror-pages/ror-odd-year-2015/hist-reg-stats.pdf

[30] “Latino Likely Voters in California,” Public Policy Institute of California, August 2014.

[31] Kim Alexander, “The California Voters’ Experience”, California Voter Foundation, October 29, 2008.http://www.calvoter.org/issues/votereng/calvoters/calvoter_experience.html 

[32] Nicole Ely, “Levine Holds Edge on Allen in Tight State Assembly Race,” San Rafael Patch, November 7, 2012; Barry Donegan, “Partisan Attack in California 10th Assembly District Race,” Independent Voter Network, October 3, 2012.

[33] John Wildermuth, “Glazer wins easy victory over Bonilla in state Senate runoff,” SF Gate, May 19, 2015.

[34] Statewide Election Results for 2002-2014, California Secretary of State.

[35] Gary Cohn, “In Plain Sight: The Rise of Corporate Democrats in California,” Capitol and Main, April 15, 2014.

[36] Chris Weigant, “'No Budget, No Pay' Works Once Again in California,” Huffington Post, June 16, 2014.

[37] Adam Nagourney, “California Sees Gridlock Ease in Governing,” New York Times, October 18, 2013.

[38] Field Research Corporation, The Field Poll #2498 and #2500, February 21-25, 2015. 

[39] Hannah Glover, “Black Caucus Grows Stronger under Calif.’s Nonpartisan Primary System,” Independent Voter Network, April 28, 2015.

[40] Jeremy B. White, “California campaign spending boosts business-friendly Democrats,” Sacramento Bee, November 23, 2014.

[41] Willie Brown, Jr., “Wake up, Democrats: Steve Glazer’s win is no fluke,” San Francisco Chronicle, May 22, 2015.

[42] “Latino Likely Voters in California,” Public Policy Institute of California, August 2014.

[43] For a brief overview of this history see Omar H. Ali and Harry Kresky, “Independent Voters,” American Political Culture: An Encyclopedia, Michael Shally-Jensen, ed. (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2015), 553-558.

[44] John Diaz “California’s old political machine is losing steam,” San Francisco Chronicle, May 23, 2015http://www.sfchronicle.com/opinion/diaz/article/California-s-old-political-machine-losing-steam-6282052.php

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