Top 2 Primary: FAQs for Voters

What is a Top 2 Primary?

A Top 2 Primary allows voters to vote for any candidate running in each race.

The two candidates who receive the most votes in the Primary Election qualify for the General Election. A candidate must also receive at least 1% of the votes cast in that race to advance to the General Election.

Candidates for partisan office may state a preference for a political party, which is listed on ballots and in voters’ pamphlets.  For example:

John Smith                                           Jane Doe
(Prefers Democratic Party)                     (Prefers Republican Party)

Or candidates can choose to not state a party preference.  For example:

John Smith
(States No Party Preference)

Regardless, the party preference information has no bearing on how the election is conducted or who is allowed to advance from the Primary to the General.  Instead, which candidates are allowed to advance is based solely on how many votes they receive in the Primary.

What is a “party preference?”

Each candidate for partisan office may state a political party that he or she prefers.  A 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.

The party preference has no impact on how the election is conducted or which candidates are allowed to stay in the race to the General Election.  The two candidates who receive the most votes in the Primary, and who receive at least 1% of the votes, advance to the General.

The candidate has up to 16 characters to describe the party that he or she prefers.  This gives the candidate great freedom.  Some candidates state a preference for an established major party, such as the Democratic Party or the Republican Party, while others state a preference for novel parties, such as the No New Taxes Party.  Candidates are not restricted to stating a preference to an established major or minor party.

What offices are affected?

The Top 2 Primary applies to partisan office.  In Washington, this includes the United States Senate and House of Representatives, the State Legislature, statewide partisan office such as Governor, and county partisan office such as County Commissioner.

The Top 2 Primary does not apply to elections for:

  • President and Vice President; or
  • Political Party Precinct Committee Officer (PCO).

While there are some slight variations, elections for nonpartisan office, such as city council or judge, are conducted in a similar manner to the Top 2 Primary.  Generally, the two candidates in a nonpartisan race who receive the most votes in the Primary are the only candidates allowed to advance to the General Election.

If only 1 or 2 candidates file for an office, do they still have a Primary?

Yes.  For partisan office, there is still a Primary even if only one or two candidates file.  For nonpartisan office, there is no Primary and the candidates only appear in the General Election.

Will there be both a Democrat and a Republican on the ballot at the General Election?

Not necessarily.  First, remember that the candidates are not appearing on the ballot representing a party; they are only representing themselves.

Second, remember that the primary is for voters and candidates, not political parties.  The parties do not own a spot on the General Election ballot.  Instead, the two candidates who appear on the ballot at the General Election are the two who received the most votes in the Primary.  These candidates might prefer the same party, different parties, or not state a preference.  In some races, all candidates who file declare a party preference for the same party.

Do Minor Party Candidates ever make it to the General Election?

Yes.  Each year are candidates who prefer minor political parties, prefer parties created by the candidate, or who stated no party preference.

What is the difference between a Top 2 Primary and the Primary Elections in Other States?

Almost all other states in the country conduct nominating Primary Elections.  In these states, the primary is for the political parties, because the purpose of the primary is to select each political party’s nominee who will represent the party in the General Election.

For example, if five Republican candidates and 4 Democratic candidates file for the office of Governor, the purpose of a nominating primary is to select the one Republican candidate and one Democratic candidate who will advance to the General Election and represent their respective parties in the General Election, and are frequently required to be a registered member of the party in order to file as a candidate.  In this type of election, the candidates are representing their political party when they appear on the ballot.  If the state has party registration, the candidate usually must be a registered member of the party in order to file as a candidate of the party.  Also, the voters are required to affiliate with a party in order to vote in the Primary and are restricted to voting only for candidates of that party.

In a Top 2 Primary, the primary is for the voters and candidates because the purpose is simply to winnow the number of candidates down to two.  The candidates are not representing any political party when they appear on the ballot; they are only representing themselves.  Candidates have great freedom to describe the party that they prefer.  For example, a candidate might prefer the Pro-Life Republican Party, or the Labor Democratic Party.  The party preference information for each candidate is informational only; it has no relevance to the election itself.  Also, the voters do not have to affiliate with a party.

The purpose of the Top 2 Primary is not to select each party’s nominees.  Political parties are free to conduct their nominating procedures according to their own rules, at their own conventions, caucuses and meetings.  This frees the parties to develop their own criteria for nominations, endorsements, and other public declarations of support.

What is the difference between Washington’s Top 2 Primary and California’s new Primary?

California just passed Proposition 14.  This ballot measure creates a primary system that is similar to a Top 2 Primary, though there are some significant differences.  California has very established political parties, and party registration as part of voter registration.

As California implements the Top Two Primary, the state will have to address whether candidates are limited in their party preference options to the established political parties, such as the Republican or Democratic Party, or are free to describe their party preference in their own words, such as the No New Taxes Party.

How did the Top 2 Primary become law?

The Top 2 Primary was passed by the people in 2004 as an initiative.  Initiative 872 passed by almost 60%.

In 2005, before the new law was implemented, the Washington state Democratic, Republican and Libertarian Parties sued in federal court.  The lower courts imposed an injunction prohibiting the state from implementing the new Primary, but in March 2008 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the new law.

The new Primary was used for the first time in the 2008 Primary and General.  It was used for select partisan races in 2009, and now in the 2010 Primary and General.

Does Washington have Party Registration?

No.  Washington does not have party registration as part of voter registration.  Voters do not have to declare a party affiliation either when they register or vote.

Can a voter still write in a candidate?

Yes.  Each race on the ballot will still have a write in line for a voter to write in the name of a candidate.