California, Washington, and Oregon Political System Comparisons

Several articles in this series include references to Washington and California since these are the only other states with open primary/top-two general systems similar to Measure 90. 

Washington’s system went into effect in 2008 and California’s use of this new system began in 2012. To put the experiences of our neighboring states into perspective, the following tutorial outlines similarities and differences between these two states and Oregon. 

Voter registration 
California and Oregon both give voters an option of naming a party affiliation or choosing to be unaffiliated when registering to vote. Voter registration in Washington does not involve stating a party affiliation. This is why the candidate label on that state’s ballots list a candidate’s party preference and not his or her registration status. 

Term limits 
California has term limits while Oregon and Washington do not. This means that California will have more open seat elections. Open seat races are typically contested and genuinely competitive. This means that California’s term limits allow for increased opportunities for the effects of a change in the primary system to be revealed. 

Primary timing 
Oregon’s primary is in May. California’s primary has been held in June since 2006. Washington’s primary was in September until 2007 when it was moved to August with the first statewide primary occurring in August 2008. This change in Washington was a response to the timing challenges of determining primary winners in tight races, particularly as more counties (now all counties) were using all-mail voting with ballots received after election day being acceptable if postmarked by or on the final day of general election voting. 

Primary system history
Washington used what is called the blanket primary from 1936 to 2003, a system that elected nominees for both the major parties but allowed all registered voters to participate. The top Republican and Democratic candidates went onto the general election ballot even if they didn’t place first or second in the primary. California adopted the blanket primary system in 1996 but a successful legal challenge in 2000 ended its use of that method. The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling against California’s blanket primary focused on the need for primary systems to protect the freedom of association rights of political parties who objected to voters not registered in their party voting in their partisan party nomination process. The legal ruling in California resulted in a challenge to the blanket primary in Washington. The response was an open primary/top two  general proposal, Initiative 872, that was adopted by Washington voters in 2004. Legal wrangling, however, stalled implementation of Initiative 872. For this reason an open primary system that required voters to pick either a Democratic or Republican ballot was used in 2004 and 2006. Initiative 872 was found constitutional and went into effect in 2008. Californians adopted a similar open primary/top two general election system in a 2010 ballot measure and it went into effect in 2012.

Redistricting is the drawing of legislative and Congressional districts every ten years based on new census data. Redistricting can significantly affect the partisan composition of voters in a district and how many districts will likely be competitive. These redistricting results can, in turn, affect how outcomes linked to adoption of a new primary system play out. For this reason who draws new district lines and the guidelines used are important variations between California, Washington, and Oregon.

Due to a 2010 ballot measure, California redistricting in 2011 was done by an independent commission. California Common Cause was a key player in the campaign to adopt this reform in how and by whom new congressional and legislative district boundaries are drawn each decade. In Washington new district boundaries are drawn by a bipartisan redistricting commission, an approach adopted in 1983. The Washington Legislature appoints the four voting members of redistricting commission, typically two from each of the major political parties. These members then pick a fifth non-partisan and non-voting member. The Oregon legislature is responsible for redistricting in our state.

Return to Measure 90 overview.

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