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In a blanket primary, unlike an open primary, voters choose candidates for each office without regard to party. The candidates with the highest votes by party for each office advance to the general election, as the respective party's nominee.
A blanket primary differs from the open primary. In open primaries, voters pick candidates regardless of their own party registration, but may only choose among candidates from a single party of the voter's choice. In a blanket primary, voters can choose a Republican candidate for one office and a Democratic candidate for another office.
In 2000, the Supreme Court of the United States struck down California's blanket primary in California Democratic Party v. Jones. Voters narrowly defeated Proposition 62, the "Modified Blanket Primaries Act," in November 2004. In June 2010, voters approved Proposition 14, a similar measure known as the "Top Two Primaries Act."
Proposition 14 requires that candidates run in a single primary open to all registered voters, with the top two vote-getters meeting in a runoff. The new system took effect in the April 19, 2011 special election for State Senate, District 28.
The main argument supporters made in favor of Proposition 14 is that it might cause voters to elect more moderate members of the California State Legislature. Opponents argue that in states where a similar system is in use, it has not resulted in the election of more moderate politicians, and that Proposition 14 will result in the destruction of California's minor and independent political parties.
As a result of the blanket primary, nine of California's 53 congressional districts had same-party candidates battling in the general election on November 6, 2012. Of those, seven were between Democrats.
There were also nineteen same-party races in the state legislature in November. Of the total 28 same-party contests, a study by the Public Policy Institute of California rated only twelve as competitive. Minor party candidates, meanwhile, were only able to make it to the general election in three races.
“What we’ve noticed is candidates in California playing to a wider ideological audience as a result of the top-two primary, instead of tailoring their message to a very narrow base," said David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report.
For example, during the 2012 elections, over a dozen Republican candidates in contested legislative or Congressional races refused to sign a pledge for no new taxes. Although it had been a GOP staple in the past, under the new system candidates worry it could hurt them with Democratic voters.
Because of different ballot qualifications implemented with the top-two primary system, minor parties say they are finding it harder to get their candidates on the ballot. Under these new qualifications, minor party candidates must collect 10,000 signatures to waive a filing fee equal to two percent of the first year's salary for state offices or one percent for members of Congress. Prior to implementing the top-two system, the number of signatures required to waive that fee was 150, so most minor parties opted to file petitions. In 2012, minor parties put 21 candidates on the ballot in California. For the 10 years prior to that election, they averaged a combined 133 candidates on the ballot. Additionally, in the 111 elections for federal or state office in which a minor party did place a candidate on the primary ballot against at least two major party candidates in a top-two primary system, no minor party candidate has placed first or second in order to move on to the general election. The Green, Libertarian and Peace and Freedom Parties have joined together in a lawsuit trying to overturn the top-two primary system in California.
One of the desired impacts of the top-two primary system was to promote more moderate candidates. According to Global Strategy Group, a polling and public relations firm that conducts research on public policy, that impact has not come to fruition. One of the reasons for this is low voter turnout at the primary elections, especially among Democratic voters. Though the Democratic Party accounts for 44 percent of registered voters statewide compared to the Republican Party's 29 percent, in many districts where Democrats hold the majority, elections have been won by very small margins or even been lost to a Republican candidate. Because of the higher Republican voter turnout, Democrats must often fight for a single spot in the general election, and those with close ties to the party establishment and who stick close to party orthodoxy often gain greater support and thus have the advantage in the primary over other, more moderate candidates within the party.
Another byproduct of the top-two primary system is the emergence of "sham" candidate accusations. Jeffrey Wald, a member of the Alameda County, California, Republican Central Committee, filed a lawsuit on March 24, 2014 charging that two Republican candidates entered the race for a congressional seat in order to split the Republican vote so no candidate in the party would be able to move on to the general election. "Sham" candidates would have no effect on a party's front-runner if California did not have a top-two primary system.
Louisiana uses what is known as a nonpartisan blanket primary or jungle primary. Under this system, adopted in 1975 by then Gov. Edwin Edwards, all candidates are put on the same primary ballot. If a candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, they are declared the winner. If no one wins a simple majority, a runoff between the top-two vote getters takes place on the general election date. This can often result in an election between two members of the same party.
The nonpartisan blanket primary system has been used consistently for partisan elections to state and local office, but was discontinued for congressional elections in 2008. However, in June 2010, Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) signed HB 292 into law, returning congressional elections to the nonpartisan blanket system in 2012.
The race below is from the 2007 Louisiana State Senate election, District 2. Three Democratic candidates faced off in the primary on October 20, 2007. Because no candidate received 50 percent, the top two candidates advanced to a general election.
District 14, 2007, Louisiana
October 20 General election candidates:
- Yvonne Dorsey 11,398
- Jason Decuir 9,915
- Willis Reed, Sr. 2,019
- Steven K. Schilling 477
November 17 General election candidates:
- Yvonne Dorsey 8,701
- Jason Decuir 8,608
Washington state voters passed Initiative 872 in 2004 to adopt the Louisiana-style nonpartisan blanket primary. This system has been used for all partisan elections since 2008. Under the law, all candidates for each partisan office appear together on the primary ballot. Candidates are permitted to express a party preference or declare themselves independents, and their preference or status appears on the ballot.
The primary ballot includes all candidates filing for the office, including major party and minor party candidates and independents. Voters are permitted to vote for any candidate for any office, and are not limited to a single party.
The general election ballot is limited to the two candidates who received the most votes for each office in the primary, regardless of whether these two candidates are or the same or different parties.
The Ninth Circuit struck down the initiative in July 2005, but the Supreme Court ruled on March 18, 2008 in Washington State Grange v. Washington State Republican Party et al. that Initiative 872 was at least facially constitutional and could go into effect.
On January 22, 2010 the Democratic, Republican and Libertarian Parties filed amended complaints against the initiative, which were heard before a federal court in November 2010. In January 2011, Judge John Coughenour upheld the law, rejecting arguments that the system confuses voters who could interpret a candidate's party preference as an official endorsement by the party.
The race below is from the 2010 Washington House of Representatives election, District 31a. Despite the fact that one Democratic candidate ran against two Republican candidates, the blanket primary system allows for two Republican candidates to advance to the general election.
August 17 primary candidates:
November 2 General election candidates:
Arguments for and against
Compared to other methods of conducting primary elections, the blanket primary is less restrictive for voters because it does not limit them to selecting from only one party's candidates. Some political analysts believe that a blanket primary promotes moderate candidates because voters are more likely to choose centrist politicians down the line rather than allow extremists to take office.
Mainstream political parties often see this as a disadvantage because in their view, it discourages party loyalty, especially among moderate voters who do not identify strongly with either party. The system also has potential for tactical voting: Voters opposed to one party might disingenuously choose a weaker candidate from that party, setting the candidate up to lose in the general election.
Other primary systems
- University of Denver, "Polarization Interrupted? California's Experiment with the Top-Two Primary" by Seth Masket, October 17, 2012
- "History of the Blanket Primary in Washington", Washington Secretary of State, accessed January 12, 2006.
- Political Science at University of the Pacific, "Updating Prop. 14 and the Death of Minor Parties," May 8, 2014
- Los Angeles Times, "Top-two primary might be bad for small-party candidates," April 14, 2014
- Ballot Access News, "Illinois Bill for a Top-Two System," February 28, 2014
- Ballotpedia:Index of Terms
- Voting in the 2013 primary elections
- Signature requirements and deadlines for 2014 state government elections
- Open primary
- Closed primary
- Wise Geek: "What is the blanket primary," accessed November 5, 2013
- Redondo Beach Patch, "Feb. 15 Set for Special Election to Fill Oropeza's Seat," December 17, 2010
- San Francisco Chronicle, "Ballot measure would provide open primaries," March 11, 2010
- Reuters, "Democrats face Democrats in new California election system," June 6, 2012
- The Tribune, "California's top-two voting system changes campaigns, but will it alter governance?," October 8, 2012
- The New York Times, "New Rules Upend House Re-Election Races in California," September 24, 2012
- Calnewsroom.com, "In statewide debut, top-two primary blocks third parties from June ballot," February 14, 2014
- Ballot Access News, "California Special Election Returns, State Senate District 23," March 26, 2014
- Ballot Access News, "Top-Two System Again Excludes All Minor Parties from General Election Campaign if At Least Two Major Party Members Ran," June 4, 2014
- Global Strategy Group, "Even in Big Blue California, Democrats Face a Turnout Crisis," March 24, 2014
- Ballot Access News, "California Republican Party Official Files Lawsuit, Asserting that Two Republican Congressional Candidates are “Sham” Candidates and Should be Removed from Ballot," March 27, 2014
- Slate, "Why Does Louisiana Have Such an Odd Election System?," November 13, 2002
- Independent Political Report, "Louisiana Considers Restoring “Jungle Primary”," April 8, 2010
- Times-Picayune, "Gov. Bobby Jindal signs law returning congressional races to open primaries in 2012," June 29, 2010
- Louisiana State Legislature, "Act. 570" (2010)
- Washington Secretary of State, "Top 2 Primary: FAQs for Candidates," accessed September 7, 2011
- Washington State Grange v. Republican Party
- California Independent Voter Network, "Washington State open primary ruling helps weaken possible legal challenges to California's Prop 14," January 21, 2011
- KNDO, "Top 2 Primary Voting System upheld in Supreme Court," October 1, 2012