A proposed Florida constitutional amendment to implement a top-two primary system for state offices has attained enough valid signatures to qualify for the 2020 ballot, setting up a battle over an electoral system that could wreak havoc for fair elections.
This top-two system would see all candidates from all parties run on a single primary ballot, with the top-two finishers—regardless of party—advancing to the November general election, a system that is already used in California and Washington.
As we've previously documented, this electoral system is notorious for producing outcomes that don't reflect the desires of the electorate. One chief reason why: a party can win a majority of votes cast in the primary yet get shut out of the general election simply because it fields a large number of candidates while the minority party only puts forth a few or even just two.
Furthermore, primary electorates often feature very different demographic compositions than higher-turnout general elections, producing greater partisan and racial dissonance between the two rounds. These distortions have seen one party or the other get shut out of general elections in recent years in California and Washington, including in contests they likely would have won if the parties had gotten to nominate candidates through traditional primaries.
Proponents have billed this measure as promoting "open primaries" and argue that top-two would allow unaffiliated voters to have more influence. This reform, however, doesn't establish a traditional open primary, where voters can pick which primary to vote in regardless of how they are registered.
Proponents also contend that it gives minority-party voters more sway to elect centrist candidates in same-party general elections in districts that heavily favor the majority party. But instead, this system creates perverse incentives where party organizations have to coordinate to advance particular candidates before primary voters even get a chance to weigh in, lest their party get shut out of a general election. That effectively shifts much of the nominating process to party insiders instead of empowering voters.
Furthermore, same-party contests have done little to promote moderation in either California and Washington, instead leading to a spike in voters skipping same-party contests on their ballots when their favored party gets shut out. In one particularly notable case of California's 2018 Senate election, Republicans voted for the more left-wing Democrat because the more moderate incumbent Dianne Feinstein had galvanized Republican opposition during the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings.
Many of these problems could be avoided with an alternate reform such as instant-runoff voting (also known as ranked-choice voting), which other states such as Maine have passed. Nevertheless, this amendment is far from guaranteed to pass, particularly since Florida requires a 60% supermajority for ballot initiatives. Furthermore, since Florida initiatives may only address a single subject, this proposal doesn't affect federal offices. A concurrent effort to put a second initiative on the ballot for congressional elections has relatively few signatures so far.