A nonpartisan blanket primary is a primary election in which all candidates for the same elected office, regardless of respective political party, run against each other at once, instead of being segregated by political party. Multiple winners are selected and become the contestants in the general election, in a two-round system. In addition there is no separate party nomination process for candidates before the first round, and political parties are not allowed to whittle down the field using their own internal processes (such as party primaries or conventions). It is entirely possible that multiple candidates of the same political party advance to the general election.
This system theoretically elects more moderate candidates, for winning might require appealing to voters of both parties in a two-party system. However all primaries use plurality voting and are susceptible to vote splitting: the more candidates from the same party that run in the primary, the more likely that party is to lose. Research on California's primaries has shown no increase in moderate candidates, and no increase in turnout among nonpartisan voters. Some have proposed using other voting systems in the primary to alleviate this problem, such as the Unified Primary based on approval voting.
The top-two system is used for all primaries in Washington and California except presidential primaries, and Alaska will begin using a top-four primary system in 2022 with a general election using ranked-choice voting.
The so-called Louisiana primary is similar, with a first round to pick the top two of all the candidates, and a second round to choose between these top two. The differences are that the first election is the general election and the second is a later "runoff" election, and there is no second round if a candidate wins more than half the votes in the first round.
Because voters can vote in the first round for a candidate from any political party, the nonpartisan blanket primary has been compared to the original blanket primary, which was used in Washington for nearly 65 years and briefly in California. The blanket primary was ruled unconstitutional in 2000 by the Supreme Court of the United States in California Democratic Party v. Jones, as it forced political parties to associate with candidates they did not endorse. The nonpartisan blanket primary disregards party preference in determining the candidates to advance to the general election and for that reason, it has been ruled facially constitutional by the Supreme Court in the 2008 decision Washington State Grange v. Washington State Republican Party.
Chief Justice John Roberts concurred in the 2008 decision, stating: "If the ballot is designed in such a manner that no reasonable voter would believe that the candidates listed there are nominees or members of, or otherwise associated with, the parties the candidates claimed to 'prefer', the I-872 primary system would likely pass constitutional muster." Each candidate for partisan office can state a political party that he or she prefers. Ballots also must feature a disclaimer to voters that candidate's preference does not imply that the candidate is nominated or endorsed by the party or that the party approves of or associates with that candidate.
Subsequent as applied challenges were struck down by lower courts, and on October 1, 2012, the US Supreme Court refused to hear appeals from Washington Libertarian Party and Washington State Democratic Party. The Washington State Republican Party had earlier dropped out of the appeal process.
Both Washington and California implement a two-winner nonpartisan blanket primary by plurality vote.
The plan is used in Texas and some other states in special elections but not primaries. A notable example involved former US Senator Phil Gramm, who in 1983 (while a member of the House of Representatives), after switching from the Democratic to the Republican Party, resigned his seat as a Democrat on January 5, ran as a Republican for his own vacancy in a special election held on February 12, and won rather handily.
There have also been efforts in Oregon to pass a similar law, but the Oregon Senate rejected it in May 2007 and it failed in a November 2008 referendum as Measure 65. Oregon voters defeated it again in November 2014 as Measure 90, despite a $2.1 million donation from former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and a $2.75 million donation from former Enron executive John D. Arnold to support it.
Maryland has explored a top-two primary, erroneously naming it an open primary, such as in 2019 House Bill 26. Testimony was provided by several organizations, including FairVote and Common Cause, and independent constituents, and included statements about Condorcet systems, proportional representation and single transferable vote, and concerns that a top-two rather than top-three or more primary would not supply adequate choice for voters.
In the 2020 Alaska elections, voters approved Measure 2, which will replace party primaries with a single nonpartisan blanket primary, in which the top 4 candidates will advance to a general election that uses ranked-choice voting. It will be used for all state and federal elections except for president.
Florida voters rejected an amendment to adopt the top-two primary in 2020.
Washington, along with California and Alaska, had a blanket primary system that allowed every voter to choose a candidate of any party for each position. That kind of system was ruled unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court in California Democratic Party v. Jones (2000) because it forced political parties to endorse candidates against their will.
The Washington State Legislature passed a new primary system in 2004, which would have created a top-two nonpartisan blanket primary system. It provided an open primary as a backup, giving the governor the option to choose. Although Secretary of State Sam Reed advocated the blanket, non-partisan system, on April 1, 2004 the Governor used the line-item veto to activate the Open primary instead. In response, Washington's Initiative 872 was filed on January 8, 2004 by Terry Hunt from the Washington Grange, which proposed to create a nonpartisan blanket primary in that state. The measure passed with 59.8% of the vote (1,632,225 yes votes and 1,095,190 no votes) in 2004. On March 18, 2008, the US Supreme Court ruled, in Washington State Grange v. Washington State Republican Party, that Washington's Initiative 872 was constitutionally permissible. Unlike the earlier blanket primary, it officially disregards party affiliation while allowing candidates to state their party preference. However, the court wanted to wait for more evidence before addressing the chief items in the complaint and remanded the decision to the lower courts.
Starting in the 2008 election, Washington state implemented this Top 2 primary, which applies to federal, state and local elections, but not to presidential elections. There is no voter party registration in Washington, and candidates are not restricted to stating an affiliation with an established major or minor party. The candidate has up to 16 characters to describe on the ballot the party that he or she prefers. Some candidates state a preference for an established major party, such as the Democratic Party or the Republican Party, while others use the ballot to send a message, such as Prefers No New Taxes Party or Prefers Salmon Yoga Party. Since this is a "preference" and not a declaration of party membership, candidates can assert party affiliation without approval of the party itself, or use alternate terms for a given party. Gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi's 2008 stated preference was for the "GOP Party", although he is a prominent Republican.
First Ballot, August 17, 2010
|Norm Johnson||Republican||10,129 (44.26%)||Runoff|
|Michele Strobel||Republican||8,053 (35.19%)||Runoff|
|Scott Brumback||Democratic||4,702 (20.55%)||Defeated|
Second Ballot November 2, 2010
|Norm Johnson||Republican||19,044 (52.5%)||Elected|
|Michele Strobel||Republican||17,229 (47.5%)||Defeated|
In this race a three-way primary led to a two-way race between two members of the same party (Republicans) in the general election. With over 20% of the population voting for the Democrat and neither Republican winning close to a majority in the primary, both of the Republican candidates had to appeal to Democrats and other voters who did not support them in the first round. For example, incumbent Norm Johnson came out in favor of same-sex civil unions, moving to the left of challenger Michele Strobel, who opposed them.
First Ballot August 17, 2010
|Nick Harper||Democratic||7,193 (35.09%)||Runoff|
|Rod Rieger||Conservative||6,713 (32.75%)||Runoff|
|Jean Berkey||Democratic||6,591 (32.16%)||Defeated|
Second Ballot November 2, 2010
|Nick Harper||Democratic||22,089 (59.73%)||Elected|
|Rod Rieger||Conservative||14,892 (40.27%)||Defeated|
In this heavily Democratic district, Berkey was officially endorsed by the 38th District Democratic Party, but Democratic challenger Nick Harper bankrolled ads for the Republican candidate in an effort to "Squeeze the Middle" and prevent the moderate incumbent Berkey from running in the general election. When Berkey placed third in the primary by a margin of 122 votes, the Moxie Media scandal ensued: the state's election watchdog committee unanimously voted to refer the case to the state Attorney General Rob McKenna, who within hours "filed suit, alleging multiple campaign-finance violations". Despite the call of several former state senators to hold another election, the election results were upheld and Berkey was prevented from running in the general election. Harper easily won the subsequent uncompetitive runoff election.
First Ballot, August 17, 2010 (only top three vote-getters listed)
|Patty Murray||Democratic||670,284 (46.22%)||Runoff|
|Dino Rossi||Republican||483,305 (33.33%)||Runoff|
|Clint Didier||Republican||185,034 (12.76%)||Defeated|
Second Ballot November 2, 2010
|Patty Murray||Democratic||1,314,930 (52.36%)||Elected|
|Dino Rossi||Republican||1,196,164 (47.64%)||Defeated|
In this race, the three leading candidates' competition resulted in a more moderate and popular Republican facing off against the incumbent Democrat, with a relatively close general election. Clint Didier and Dino Rossi were the two main Republicans vying to run against the incumbent Democratic Senator Patty Murray. Rossi had much greater name recognition, had narrowly lost two races for governor, and was favored by the party establishment. Didier, a former tight end for the National Football League's Washington Redskins, had never run for elected office and was endorsed by Tea Party favorites Ron Paul and Sarah Palin. Didier might have been able to win the GOP nomination from Rossi in a closed primary that rewards candidates for appealing to the hardline of their base, but the more moderate Rossi was easily able to defeat Didier in the Top Two primary. While one might expect more Democrats in the Top Two primary to vote tactically for Didier, the Republican candidate who was doing much worse in polls against Murray, most Democrats seemed content voting for Murray. If any tactical voting occurred, it seemed to be on the Republican side, with the vast majority of the Republican voters choosing Rossi, perceived as a more electable candidate. In this case, the Top Two primary resulted in a more moderate Republican candidate running against the Democratic incumbent, and likely a much more competitive race than if the Tea Party candidate had run against Murray.
The 4th district is a large and predominantly rural district in Central Washington that encompasses numerous counties and is dominated by the Tri-Cities and Yakima areas. Republican Doc Hastings, who represented the 4th district since 1995, retired. The two winners of the top two primary were the Tea Party candidate Clint Didier (endorsed by Ron Paul) and Dan Newhouse, the former Director of the Washington State Department of Agriculture under Christine Gregoire and former State Representative. In a close general election, Newhouse prevailed.
|Republican||Janéa Holmquist Newbry||11,061||10.36|
|Republican||Glen R. Stockwell||547||0.51|
|Republican||Gordon Allen Pross||178||0.17|
California's blanket primary system was ruled unconstitutional in California Democratic Party v. Jones in 2000 because it forced political parties to associate with candidates they did not endorse. Then in 2004, Proposition 62, an initiative to bring the nonpartisan blanket primary to California, failed with only 46% of the vote. However, Proposition 14, a nearly identical piece of legislation, passed on the June 2010 ballot with 53.7% of the vote.
Under Proposition 14, statewide and congressional candidates in California, regardless of party preference, participate in the nonpartisan blanket primary. However, a candidate must prefer the major party on the ballot that they are registered in. After the June primary election, the top two candidates advance to the November general election. That does not affect the presidential primary, local offices, or non-partisan offices such as judges and the Superintendent of Public Instruction. The California Secretary of State now calls the system a "Top-Two Primary".
The 2012 general election was the first non-special election in California to use the nonpartisan blanket primary system established by Proposition 14. As a result, eight congressional districts featured general elections with two candidates of the same party: the 15th, 30th, 35th, 40th, 43rd, and 44th with two Democrats, and the 8th and 31st with two Republicans.
In the 2014 general election, eight congressional districts featured general elections with two candidates of the same party: the 17th, 19th, 34th, 35th, 40th, and 44th with two Democrats, and the 4th and 25th with two Republicans.
In the 2016 general election, the U.S. Senate race featured two Democrats running against each other, and seven congressional districts with two Democrats running against each other: the 17th, 29th, 32nd, 34th, 37th, 44th, and 46th. There were no races with two Republicans running against each other.
The 15th district is based in the East Bay and includes Hayward and Livermore. Democrat Pete Stark, who represented the 13th district from 1993 to 2013 and its predecessors since 1973, lost reelection here to fellow Democrat Eric Swalwell in the general election after Stark won the primary.
|Democratic||Pete Stark (incumbent)||39,943||42.1|
|No party preference||Christopher "Chris" J. Pareja||20,618||21.7|
|Democratic||Pete Stark (incumbent)||110,646||47.9|
Though the intention is to allow multiple candidates from the majority party to advance to the second round (including, hopefully, one more representative of the broader population), critics note that this can also happen to a minority party when that party runs fewer candidates than another and thus faces less vote-splitting. Under the nonpartisan blanket primary, a party with two candidates and only 41% popular support would beat a party with three candidates and 59% popular support if voters split their votes evenly among candidates for their own party. For example, in Washington's 2016 primary for state treasurer, Democrats won a majority of the vote but failed to move on to the general election:
|Duane Davidson||Republican||322,374 (25.09%)||Runoff|
|Michael Waite||Republican||299,766 (23.33%)||Runoff|
|Marko Liias||Democratic||261,633 (20.36%)||Defeated|
|John Paul Comerford||Democratic||230,904 (17.97%)||Defeated|
|Alec Fisken||Democratic||170,117 (13.24%)||Defeated|
Political Science Professor Todd Donovan published an article in 2012 for the California Journal of Politics & Policy called "The Top Two Primary: What Can California Learn from Washington?" Donovan was the only expert witness in favor of the top-two idea, for the as applied court challenge of Top-Two. His academic paper states, "The partisan structure of Washington's legislature appears unaltered by the new primary system." Donovan concluded, "The aggregate of all this did not add up to a legislature that looked different or functioned differently from the legislature elected under a partisan primary."
In Washington, major parties originally used an alternate process of party endorsement for partisan legislative and county administrative positions. This would ensure that one official party candidate will be in the primary, theoretically reducing the risk of intra-party vote splits. However, the law does not allow nominations or endorsements by interest groups, political action committees, political parties, labor unions, editorial boards, or other private organizations to be printed on the ballot.
The indication of party preference as opposed to party affiliation opens the door for candidates to misrepresent their leanings or otherwise confuse voters. In 2008, a Washington gubernatorial candidate indicated party preference as "G.O.P." instead of Republican. A public poll found that 25% of the public did not know that the two terms mean the same thing.
Further research on California's 2012 jungle primaries suggests that a jungle primary does not tend to lead to large amounts of crossover votes. Most voters who crossed over did so for strategic reasons. Furthermore, there is evidence that having the top two candidates from the same party could lead to a drop in voter participation in the second round.
With regards to reducing political polarization, this does not seem to hold true. Due to lack of crossover votes, an extreme candidate from the majority party can still win over a moderate from the other party. Though the intention of the system is to get a moderate from the majority party, this will not happen if there is no moderate, if the moderate lacks name recognition, or if voters are unsure of which candidate is more moderate.
The theory was that candidates would be forced to moderate their appeals to win a broader section of the electorate. ... leading to a November ballot between two candidates from the same party. That would happen if multiple candidates from the same party crowded the ballot, canceling each other out as they divided a finite group of voters
The idea was that by opening up primaries to all voters, regardless of party, a flood of new centrist voters would arrive. That would give moderate candidates a route to victory .. Candidates did not represent voters any better after the reforms, taking positions just as polarized as they did before the top two. We detected no shift toward the ideological middle.
This approach aims to soften how partisan the winners are. ... support for the middle is divided among three candidates (we call this vote splitting). Plurality's winners are largely determined not by the merit of the candidates, but rather by who else is running.
If too many candidates from one edge of the political spectrum enter the same race without a clear frontrunner, they risk splitting their side of the vote, canceling each other out, and handing the top two spots to the opposition party.
The two Republicans might get 25 percent of the vote apiece, while the Democrats each receive 5 percent.
neither the Citizens Redistricting Commission nor the top-two primary immediately halted the continuing partisan polarization of California's elected lawmakers or their drift away from the average voter
Two groups that were predicted by advocates to increase their participation in response to this reform--those registered with third parties or no-party-preference registrants (independents) who were not guaranteed a vote in any party's primary before the move to the top-two--also show declines in turnout