California’s Top-Two Primary Eliminates Third-Party Rivals

Primary elections originated in the American progressive movement and were intended to take the power of candidate nomination away from party leaders and deliver it to the people.  California’s Top Two Primary takes power away from third parties representing the 99% and delivers it to the 1%.

Voters have increasingly become disillusioned with the Democratic and Republican Parties. According to a poll reported by Rasmussen in April, more than half the country believes that neither of the top two parties represents the American people. As presidential candidate Ron Paul remarked in 2011:

These parties aren’t different, they’re all the same. The monetary policy stays the same. The welfare system stays the same. The foreign policy stays the same. . . . There is but one party.

Or as Ronald Reagan put it, “We don’t need a third party. We need a second party.”

A recent Gallup poll found that nationwide, the share of registered voters identifying as independent has hit a record high of 42 percent. That trend also holds true in California. Yet no third-party or independent candidate for state-wide office will appear on the California general election ballot in November. All were eliminated by Top Two, the new electoral system ushered in by Proposition 14 in 2010. It excludes all but the top-two primary vote-getters from advancing to November, and that effectively means all but the top two political parties.

In the June 3rd California primary, the highest number of votes received by any third party or independent candidate was 270,388, representing 6.6% of voters. That count went to me, running as a Green for state treasurer on a state bank platform. It was the highest percentage ever gotten by a Green in a statewide partisan California election, but it was not enough to leap the top-two barrier. Laura Wells, also running as a Green on a state bank platform, received 5.6% of the vote for state controller. All other third party and independent statewide candidates got a lower percentage in their races, except for one independent who just placed fourth. That means only Democrats and Republicans will be debating the issues in November.

Top Two has not only foreclosed third-party candidates from the general election but has made it substantially harder for them to get on the primary ballot. From 1992 to 2010, the Green, Libertarian, Peace and Freedom, and American Independent parties averaged 127 primary ballot candidates among them in each election cycle. In 2012, in Top Two’s first year, they were able to qualify only 17 for state legislative and congressional races, the fewest since 1966, when only Democrats and Republicans were on the ballot. This dropped to 13 in 2014, with only 10 others running for quadrennial statewide offices, down from 33 in 2010.

California’s Controversial Proposition 14

On Feb. 19, 2009, between 4 and 7 a.m., without any public notice or public hearing, the Legislature placed a major constitutional electoral reform – Proposition 14 – on the June 2010 primary ballot and approved its companion statute, Senate Bill 6.

The Voter Information Guide did not provide a summary or text of SB 6, which fleshes out critical details of Proposition 14; nor did Proposition 14’s official ballot title and summary refer to it. Many potential negative effects of Top Two were hidden from voters, and opportunities to vet and correct them before the measure was placed on the ballot were denied to the public.

This left the field wide open for California’s largest corporations – which enthusiastically favored Proposition 14 because they thought it would result in the election of corporate-friendly public officials – to flood the airwaves with propoganda about how Top Two would increase voter choice. In fact, it has done the opposite, to the point of excluding “no corporate money” candidates from the general election debate.

Several other barriers to participation were added or strengthened by Top Two, without the prior vetting of voters. The number of signatures needed to be on the statewide primary ballot without paying an expensive filing fee jumped from 150 to 10,000 for smaller-party candidates – and that puts the candidate on the ballot only for the June primary, not into November as under the previous system.

Meanwhile, the fee for a candidate statement in the Voter Information Guide – the chief way many voters learn about candidates – was raised to $25 per word, putting the cost of a full statement at more than double the candidate filing fee. The result was to radically reduce the number of words many smaller-party candidates can afford.

The Legislature even eliminated general election write-in candidacies – a right Californians have enjoyed since statehood in 1850.

By eliminating party primaries, Top Two increased the cost of running for office – and the need for early big money – for candidates from all parties. Candidates now have to campaign to the entire electorate in June as well as in November (assuming they manage to reach the general election).  That means the role of money in California politics has only increased as a result of Top Two, making it even easier for “the 1%” to buy elections.

A Voice in the Debate

California houses 39 million people, far too many to reach by knocking on doors. Many people get their news on television. But candidates who cannot afford to buy advertising airtime and who are not invited to the televised debates (or even to the non-televised ones covered by the print media) cannot reach the broader population. That effectively means all candidates without big corporate money backing or enough personal wealth to self-fund.

Third-party candidates have long been excluded from televised debates, on the pretense that they have not polled well enough or raised enough money to be “viable candidates.” Yet hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of voters share their views on various issues. Without big money to contact voters or exposure in the debates, however, third party and other grassroots candidates cannot poll high enough to qualify because voters don’t know anything about them, creating a vicious circle of disempowerment.

But it gets worse. Apparently even the appearance of dissent to the corporate dominance of our politics cannot be tolerated. When Laura Wells attended the Brown-Whitman California gubernatorial debates in San Rafael, California, in 2010 – a race in which she was then the Green Party candidate  for governor – she was arrested just for trying to attend and sit in the audience with a ticket.  The charge, she said, was perfect: “trespassing at a private party.” Jill Stein, the 2012 Green Party candidate for US president, was similarly arrested for merely attempting to attend the presidential debates at Hofstra University, from which she had been excluded. In 2000, then-Green presidential candidate Ralph Nader was blocked from entering a viewing party in the building next door to the presidential debate from which he had been excluded. And in 2002, California Green gubernatorial candidate Peter Camejo was excluded from a gubernatorial debate although he was on the guest list of the Republican nominee in the debate.

Taking Back Our Democracy

Under the current electoral system, corporate-funded politics are strangling democracy. Our political party system needs to be radically overhauled.

At the federal level, the presidential debates are controlled by the Commission on Presidential Debates, a private corporation run by the Democrat and Republican parties and funded by corporate America. The Green Party’s alternative is to create a new publicly-funded People’s Commission on Presidential Debates, and to open its presidential debates to all candidates who appear on at least as many ballots as would represent a majority of the Electoral College and who raise enough funds to otherwise qualify for general election public financing. Also recommended is to amend federal law to remove the non-profit tax exemption status that allows corporations to fund the existing Commission on Presidential Debates and other exclusive, privately-controlled debate entities.

In California, the Green Party recommends overturning Top Two and replacing it with a system of multi-seat districts with proportional representation in the legislature. A constituency or party receiving 10% of the vote would win 10% of the seats, 30% of the vote would win 30% of the seats, and so on. This would lower the cost of getting elected while increasing the diversity of representation to more accurately reflect the voters.

For single-seat statewide executive office, Ranked Choice or “Instant Runoff” Voting is recommended, and has been successfully implemented in a number of countries and municipalities. Voters rank their choices by preference. In a five way race, a voter’s first choice gets five points and his last choice gets one point, with other selections in between. The candidate with the most points wins. There is only one election, so issues get discussed and minor party candidates get heard right up to the end. Ranked Choice Voting gives people more power to vote their true preferences, without being trapped in the “lesser-of-two-evils” dynamic that has been used to stifle real dialogue and choice.

For all elections, public financing is needed, in order to ensure that voters hear from all candidates rather than just the most well-funded.

The money is with the 1%, but the vote count is with the 99%. We can prevail, if we can get that great mass of disillusioned voters into the voting booths. And that is just the sort of game-changing event that Top Two is calculated to prevent.



Ellen Brown is an attorney, founder of the Public Banking Institute and the author of twelve books, including the best-selling Web of Debt. Her latest book, The Public Bank Solution, explores successful public banking models historically and globally.

36 Responses

  1. Ellen Brown, I was very hopeful that your message would prevail in Calif but I am sure the set back will not deter you from charging ahead for all of us across this nation.

    • Thanks! I’ll keep forging ahead! As Gandhi said, “First they ignore you, then they fight you, then they say, ‘That’s what I said all along'” (or something to that effect).

  2. I think the CA elections are rigged.

  3. We need an, Opposition Party………

  4. Great work my dear Ellen!!!! I love your Spirit!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  5. I admire your restraint and constructive fact-filled approach in the face of outrageous corruption. As a people, we have to wake up.

  6. I voted for you and Laura Wells and asked family and friends to do the same. Thank you for your work and dedication!

    • Let s make it official on all voting for Ellen. Get a notarized affidavit for all those that vote for her. Ask notaries to do this as a public act to help change the system of no checks, and balances?

  7. I applaud you for trying. I wish my one vote had more power as l believe your platform based on public banking is the only rational way out of the hegemony of the banking system today. Please keep me informed of your activities as I will try to support them. On Jun 8, 2014 8:48 AM, “WEB OF DEBT BLOG” wrote:

    > Ellen Brown posted: “Primary elections originated in the American > progressive movement and were intended to take the power of candidate > nomination away from party leaders and deliver it to the people. > California’s Top Two Primary takes power away from third parties > represent”

  8. Here’s a movement attempting to drive money out of politics – by amending the U.S. constitution to specifically state that legal entities are NOT people and the protections of the constitution apply specifically to real, natural, people. It also specifically declares that money is NOT free speech and may be regulated by government at all levels.

    It does not directly fix all our problems, merely reverses the decisions of the supreme court in regards to corporate personhood and what constitutes speech. Even if this passes, we still need our politicians and regulatory agencies to use their power.

  9. […] By Ellen Brown Primary elections originated in the American progressive movement and were intended to take the power of candidate nomination away from party leaders and deliver it to the people. California’s Top Two Primary takes power away from third parties representing the 99% and delivers it to the 1%. Voters have increasingly become disillusioned with the Democratic […] …read more […]

  10. I agree that third parties have a difficult time in getting elected, but not only in CA.  There are few third party candidates getting elected anywhere in the nation, except for the few hopefuls labeled Independent.   I don’t see that as a result of the change in primary voting in CA, it is simply that third parties have had little success ever. 

    The tea baggers took over the R’s primarily because the R’s lost sight of what they stood for: a reasonable but conservative stance for governance.  The angry white male is the dominant force behind the tea bag faction, and is heavily funded by the corporate churches and far right corporations a la the Kochs, who play both sides of the R’s divisions. 

    I would certainly hope you’d run again; I totally support the idea of a state bank based on what I’ve read about them.  But you might consider running as an independent and disassociate yourself from a minor third party which has little recognition with most of the public, even as environmentally supportive as is most of the CA public. Will Mattsson

    • Well said, William. I looked at voting results in 22 counties with the highest number of registered voters and found that almost all people vote for their party’s candidates, with little deviation.

      Ellen did well in spite of a semi-rigged system by the Republican/Democrat Party Cabal, which exclude alternative political parties in their supposed debates.

      Unless and until people get tired of the pro-corporate, pro-war, pro Wall Street, pro super-rich oligarchs and big financial string-pullers, and reregister and vote for Greens and Peace and Freedom candidates, America will continue the steady decline of, for all of our faults, a once great nation.

      Thank you Ellen for your efforts and I was so happy to see some Democrats I know, voting for you as well!

      Green Frank

  11. So much for “Freedom and Democracy” in America.
    “It does not matter whom one votes for, what matters is, who counts the votes”…….Joseph Stalin.

  12. I think everyone needs to calm down here. Clearly the Founding Fathers intended for the needs of the majority not to be met and the needs of the wealthy to be the only purpose of government.

    It explains why they ceded the United States back to England after 1776.

    • Ceded only on the most important point: who creates and controls the money supply (Alexander Hamilton and the First Bank of the US). Same thing happened in South Africa. They conceded the political system, but not the economic system.
      Seems the only way to true democracy is by regaining the control of creating and controlling the money supply.

      • Though that is true, sort of, because we still had real money not “funny money. This control of our money started Dec. 23, 1913 under President Wilson with the Federal Reserve Act. This was passed under questionable circumstances that usurped the separation of powers restrictions of the Constitution.  At about the same time as the creation of the FED was the lobbying for the 16th Amendment, which taxed “income” and was ratified on Feb 3, 1913.  (Both acts passed in the first year of Wilson’s Administration, although evidence shows that Pres. Teddy Roosevelt’s Administration did the majority of work on the 16th Amendment.)

        Charlie Reese: “Politicians are the only people in the world who create problems and then campaign against them.

        Have you ever wondered, if both the Democrats and the Republicans are against deficits, WHY do we have deficits?

        Have you ever wondered, if all the politicians are against inflation and high taxes, WHY do we have inflation and high taxes?

        You and I don’t propose a federal budget.  The president does.
        You and I don’t have the Constitutional authority to vote on appropriations. The House of Representatives does.
        You and I don’t write the tax code, Congress does.
        You and I don’t set fiscal policy, Congress does.
        You and I don’t control monetary policy, the Federal Reserve Bank does.

        One hundred senators, 435 congressmen, one president, and nine Supreme Court justices equates to 545 human beings out of the 300 million are directly, legally, morally, and individually responsible for the domestic problems that plague this country.

        I excluded the members of the Federal Reserve Board because the Congress created that problem. In 1913, Congress delegated its Constitutional duty to provide a sound currency to a federally chartered, but private, central bank.

        I excluded all the special interests and lobbyists for a sound reason. They have no legal authority. They have no ability to coerce a senator, a congressman, or a president to do one cotton-picking thing. I don’t care if they offer a politician $1 million dollars in cash. The politician has the power to accept or reject it. No matter what the lobbyist promises, it is the legislator’s responsibility to determine how he votes.

        Don’t you see how the con game is played on the people by the politicians? Those 545 human beings spend much of their energy convincing you that what they did is not their fault. They cooperate in this common con regardless of party. What separates a politician from a normal human being is an excessive amount of gall…”

        • Yes, the system is vulnerable and allows the “elected” reprentatives to serve their owns ends, subject to the authority of the two political parties, Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dumber. Of course the solution to this, at least at the local, state and House of Representative levels, is to replace elections with a lottery system: no more popularity contests, no more money to get folk elected, and, finally, representation by We, the People…doctors, teachers, automechanics, window washers, homemakers…people who are truly representative of the nation. Replace politicians with representatives of the US.

          Would people decry the loss of their right to vote? Hell, the majority doesn’t care about voting, which empowers the political parties to create the rules to their advantage.

          Let’s not “Get Out the Vote”. Let’s “Get Out of the Vote”. Let’s replace the vote with a truly democratic process. One similar to the how we determine truth in trials by jury. Let’s put the power with the people and finally remove it from the political process.

          • “Let’s not “Get Out the Vote”. Let’s “Get Out of the Vote”. Let’s replace the vote with a truly democratic process.”

            I have a better idea, let’s enforce the US Constitution and state Constitution’s which will stop all of the corruption, treason, domestic enemies, and get rid of a lot of the corrupt, not even lawful bureaucracies.

            The USA will never be a democracy. Nor will she become one of the “isms”.

        • PS – @calusirius, would you explain what you think is “real money” and what you think is “funny money”? Such comments lead me to believe you are what could be referred to as a Goldbug – one who believes that money is (or should be) a commodity, controllable by powerful people: this as opposed to money as an information system, which is what it really is.

  13. […] Ellen Brown Web of Debt […]

  14. […] California’s Top-Two Primary Eliminates Third-Party Rivals […]

  15. Why even have political parties at all?

    Why not dispense with all of that, and go with something far, far better?

    Give a visit to, and consider the possibilities.

    • I agree that doing away with, or castrating political parties would enhance democracy, but a quick view of your link shows me an exercise in futility. It’s more than personal liberty involved in a social contract, and this list seems to be all about “NO” – a list of prohibitions.
      Want to emasculate political parties? Simple. Replace elections with a lottery system. Consider THIS posibility.

      • America is NOT a democracy. Democracies always fail and are taken over, genocide happens, etc. STUDY history, and not the rewritten one.


        • America was established as a democratic republic. I agree that it is NOT a democracy, but has devolved to a oligarchy/plutocracy/kleptocracy…pick your term: they’re all appropriate. What histories are you referring to? Howard Zinn? True, fledgling democracies have been crushed by Imperial Amerika. Are you proposing that the principles of democracy are ineffective and need to be replaced by other principles? If so, what principles? The ones we have now, rule by the elite?

          Finally, could you explain “Sheesh!”? Are you trying to demean instead of communicate?

  16. I appreciate all the information here on how the current election rules fail to provide representation for the range of opinions held by large groups of voters.

    Unfortunately the description of how ranked choice, or “instant runoff,” voting works is incorrect. Points are not assigned to each choice. Rather each voter has only one vote. The counting is best described in a video by Minnesota Public Radio available at

    In words, each voter’s vote is counted once in each round. Rounds are akin to runoffs, with the lowest polling candidate or candidates from the previous round being eliminated. If a voter’s preferred choice is eliminated, their vote transfers to their next preferred candidate. In a race for one seat, this continues until one candidate has received a majority of the votes and is elected.

  17. […] never are in the general election.  And write-ins in the general election are prohibited.  Read California’s Top-Two Primary Eliminates Third-Party Rivals for the ugly […]

  18. Accordingly, it is the National Banking Act of 1863 which is the origin of the evils for which the Federal Reserve Act was merely the capstone for today’s pyramid scheme of (-$) bills of credit. The 1863 Act placed a 10% Tobin tax on the asset-based (+$) bills of exchange of decentralised state-chartered banks, so as to eliminate the competition to a diametrically opposed monetary system, lest the powers that were given to private bankers be taken back and given to state-owned banks (rather than the publicly unaccountable 12 branch banks of the Federal Reserve).

    And even a decentralised political system can devolve after the 1% regain control – via the worst multi-level protection rackets at best, or the best media-led crusades money can buy at worst. Otherwise, as “party politics is theft,” it violates “thou shalt not steal” to vote for any political party’s candidate. So, for such conscientious objectors whom CA prevents from voting AGAINST any political party’s candidate, such that their votes are to be counted as “nay” votes as for a referendum on a ballot initiative, and from voting FOR Independents by its system rigged against Independents getting on the ballot, aren’t they disenfranchised by CA as if they were non-citizens? Wouldn’t either qualify as a valid claim for a civil rights’ violation?

  19. Dear Ellen

    What a pityful electoral system. Why don’t you come to Switzerland? 🙂 This is of course a joke. But it is no joke, that a week ago the collection of signatures for a constitutional amendment started restricting the money creation to the central bank and abolishing money creation through credits by private banks.

    We have now 18 months to collect 100’000 signatures and get a referendum on the question. If this is of interest to you, please let me know. In case you read german:


    Christoph Pfluger, a reader of your books

    Zeitpunkt Werkhofstrasse 19 CH-4500 Solothurn Tel. 032 621 81 11, Fax 032 621 81 10

    PS: Im übrigen bin ich der Ansicht, dass die private Geldschöpfung der Banken abgestellt werden muss:

  20. Ellen, What about pitching political speeches on community owned t.v. Stations? Most of these community owned t.v. stations have free access entitlement guarantees in their charters that usually get scooped up and used by those in the know, locally. I think all it takes is a loose organization statewide where just one local person in each station-coverage broadcast zone must sign with the station to be responsible if a law suit is filed.

    Why don’t third parties target these stations statewide for access, zone-by-zone, then coordinate their message?

    Rich Buckley
    Livermore, Ca

  21. Dear Ellen: I am a Democratic partisan. I believe in your and many of the other commentaries in their idealistic approach to elections.
    Unfortunately, there is a cynical realism to party politics and discipline.
    Lets take the election of that wrestler up in Minnesota some years ago!The majority of the Minnesotans (sic) did not vote for Jesse. I believe he was a third party candidate. His administration was marked with similar dysfunction as the current federal administration.
    I believe the California legislature both Democrat and Republican from the “left coast” fear the election of another demagogue as has happened.
    They don’t want another primary to be won by someone who doesn’t get an absolute majority of the votes or is a concensus candidate among all those who vote in a general election.
    Currently, as conceived both parties have candidates who win a relative majority of votes. I don’t believe that the current POTUS ever won more that 35 per cent of the primary vote!
    This is part of what alienates most voters! 65% of Republicans voted against Mr. Trump in primaries on average!
    Now with 20 candidates or more in the Democratic primary; how is concensus reached?
    I agree with all of the policy prescriptions that you and MMT advocates proscribe. The majority of people are afraid of massive change unless something like the “Great Recession” occurs. I believe they know that there must be change but what change?
    I believe in one of your books you opined that Lenin or Trotsky or some Russian author said: (I am paraphrasing) Unless you can explain it to the peasants your politics is not going anywhere.
    So tell me, which candidate, warts and all, is gong to be the philosopher-king that we all long for?
    People thought Mussolini and Hitler were that person and we know what happened there!
    Because of social media and TV, we have come to see candidates as flawed human beings and that we have to vote for someone who does not have that heroic warrior stature.
    It is my belief, because of his stature and gangliness. Abraham Lincoln, the greatest President we have had would not get elected today!

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