Ever heard of a 'top-4' primary? It could be heading to a state near you soon

Ever heard of a 'top-4' primary? It could be heading to a state near you soon
Image via Shutterstock.

This post was updated after election authorities in Arkansas certified a top-four measure for the November ballot. 


This November, as many as five states will vote on ballot measures that could dramatically change how elections are conducted.

In Florida, voters will decide whether to institute the top-two primary system, while Massachusetts could implement instant-runoff voting. Alaska, meanwhile, could become the first state in the nation to adopt the top-four voting system which, as we’ll explain, is something of a hybrid between the top-two and instant-runoff.

Top-four ballot measures have also been certified for the ballot in Arkansas and North Dakota. However, there’s still ongoing litigation in each state that could impact whether or not these referendums would take effect if they won.

We’ll start with a look at the Florida top-two ballot initiative, Amendment 3, which needs to win at least 60% of the vote in order to pass. If this measure takes effect, starting in January of 2024, all the candidates in races for governor; the other three state cabinet offices (attorney general, chief financial officer, and commissioner of agriculture); and for the state legislature would each compete on one primary ballot rather than in separate party primaries.

The two contenders with the most votes, regardless of party, would then advance to the general election. Candidates would not be able to avert the general election by taking a majority of the vote in the primary. Amendment 3 would not apply to federal elections such as the presidential or congressional contests due to limitations on the scope of any single initiative.

California and Washington already use the top-two primary (Louisiana also uses a similar all-party primary system that does allow candidates to avoid a second round of voting if they win a majority), and as we’ve written before, it’s 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.

Indeed, if the top-two had been in place in 2018 when both parties had competitive primaries for governor, Democrats would have been locked out of the general election. That year, Republican Ron DeSantis would have taken first place with 29%, while fellow Republican Adam Putnam would have beaten Democrat Andrew Gillum 19-17 for second, even though Republicans outvoted Democrats just 51-49.

The only poll we’ve seen all year of Amendment 3 was a late May survey from St. Pete Polls, which found the “no” side ahead 44-35. However, Amendment 3’s backers have received at least $6.2 million from conservative billionaire Mike Fernandez, who has been leading the effort to get the top-two implemented, which gives the campaign the resources to put up a serious fight.

Over in Massachusetts, meanwhile, supporters of instant-runoff voting (also known as ranked-choice voting), are trying to pass Question 2 this November. If Question 2 receives a majority of the vote, then starting in 2022, instant-runoff would be used in both primaries and general elections for governor and other statewide offices; U.S. Senate and House seats; the state legislature; and countywide posts such as district attorney and sheriff. The measure would not impact presidential elections or races for city and town offices.

The only poll we’ve seen this year was an early August survey from MassINC that showed voters deadlocked 36-36 on whether to adopt Question 2. If the measure passes, then Massachusetts would become the second state after Maine to use this method to decide many of its elections.

Finally, voters in AlaskaArkansas, and North Dakota each will have the opportunity to vote in referendums that could make their states the first to adopt a top-four primary. This system would require all the candidates to face off on one primary ballot, and the top four vote-getters would advance. In the general election, voters would then be able to rank their choices using instant-runoff voting. Each of these referendums only needs to win a majority of the vote to pass, but there are some key differences between them.

While each would apply to all congressional, legislative, and statewide races, only Alaska’s Measure 2 would also institute instant-runoff voting for the presidential contest. North Dakota’s Measure 3, meanwhile, would additionally remove the legislature's unfettered control over legislative redistricting and put it in the hands of a bipartisan commission.

North Dakota’s top-four law would also take effect 30 days after approval, Arkansas’ would start Jan. 1, 2021, and Alaska’s measure would begin in 2022. The only poll we’ve seen of any from any these three states was a mid-July survey from the Arkansas League of Women Voters, which supports the top-four measure, from Mercury Analytics that showed respondents agreeing by a 60-28 margin that they support “[a]llow[ing] voters to rank their top four candidates when voting in the general election so voters can have more say in their second choice candidate.”

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