California Elections

Types of Elections
Political Parties in California
History of the Initiative and Referendum Process
Voter Participation


Types of Elections

There are three main types of elections.

General Elections are elections in which most members of a given political body – like the presidency, Congress, and the Governorship – are chosen. The purpose of the General Election is to select the final people to hold offices at the federal, state and local levels. Voters select among the candidates from each party who were elected during the Primary Election.

Primary Elections are nominating elections, where a broad field of candidates are narrowed to the two top vote-getters, who advance to compete against each other in the General Election.

Special Elections are elections that are scheduled outside of the usual dates for a specific purpose, often to fill an office that has become vacant before the incumbent has completed their term.

Political Parties

California has 6 political parties (listed alphabetically):

  • American Independent
  • Democratic
  • Green
  • Libertarian
  • Peace & Freedom
  • Republican

Top-Two Primary System

Since 2010, California has utilized a top-two primary system. In a top-two primary system, all candidates are listed on the same ballot. The top two vote-getters, regardless of their partisan affiliations, advance to the general election. Consequently, it is possible that two candidates belonging to the same political party could win in a top-two primary and face off in the general election. Any registered voter may participate in the primary and vote for any candidate, regardless of his or her partisan affiliation.

What Does This Mean For You?

  • You can help determine who the final candidate will be for your chosen political party.
  • Do your research before Election Day, and ask yourself, “Who best represents my political beliefs? Who will be the best advocate for my community?”

History of the Initiative and Referendum Process

In California, policies can be made both by the state legislature, and by voters themselves through initiatives, referendums, and ballot measures. California’s brand of direct democracy means that once voters pass a ballot initiative, it can only be changed or overturned by another initiative (or, in some cases, the Supreme Court) – but not by politicians. Measures can be put on the ballot either through voter-led signature gathering campaigns, or by elected bodies. California adopted the statewide initiative process in 1911, becoming the tenth state to adopt this form of direct democracy, though the weight this system has in California is quite unique.

Researching ballot propositions is a great way to participate in our democratic system. Get together with friends, family, or neighbors and host a ballot review gathering in advance of the election if you can. Remember that democracy is not a spectator sport!

Voter Pariticpation

Greater Voter Participation Improves the Democratic Process.

  • More voters means that more people’s views and opinions are being representedIn the 2004 General election there was a voter turnout of 55.3%, meaning that only roughly half of the eligible voter population is making decisions for all Americans[1].
  • Children can’t vote, but you can!What things are important to and for your children? Using your voting power allows you to advocate on behalf of your children and your community.
  • Voting is a great example for your children to follow, and you can bring them with you to the voting booth! When you talk about the electoral process with your children and bring them with you when you vote, you’re teaching them that voting is important. You’re teaching your children to be contributing citizens. All children and youth attending voting stations with their parents will receive a Future Voter sticker.
  • Vote, but don’t just vote — take visible action to support a democratic community. Talk with your neighbors. Act to protect all citizen’s rights to vote.


As of August, 2008 25% of eligible California voters were NOT registered to vote (Public Policy Institute of California, Just the Facts, California’s Likely VotersAug. 2008). To make change happen at the local, state or federal level, people need to vote. The first step in having more people vote is to get them registered.


Excerpted from the Public Policy Committee of the Alameda County Early Care & Education Planning Council’s series of voter information emails with additions from San Francisco County elections resources.