A Tool Is a Tool Is a Tool, Continued
Prop. 62: When Is a Primary Not a Primary?
By Betsey Culp
In San Francisco, Democrats have been busy repairing
cracks in the partisan wall, trying to keep the city from being inundated
by what they see as a flood of Green candidates. National Big Dems arrived
in droves to support mayoral candidate Gavin Newsom, and the New Dems
hailed him as one of their brightest prospects. Local Dems have been
reminded of the need to endorse Democratic candidates, even for
nonpartisan races. In San Francisco, the party line has been reborn.
Not so in the rest of California.
Among the multitude of propositions on this
November’s state ballot is Prop 62 — “Should the California Constitution
be amended to: require primary elections that allow all voters to vote for
any state or federal candidate (other than President or party committee)
regardless of party affiliation; and require that only the two candidates
receiving the most votes for an office will advance to the general
What’s this all about? Parties? Maybe.
Or maybe political power.
Proponents and opponents alike tend to present their
position in all caps, the visual equivalent of shouting. Prop 62, some
say, “GIVES YOU THE POWER — NOT THE PARTY BOSSES AND POLITICIANS.”
Not so, respond others: “In many races, YOUR ONLY CHOICE WILL BE TWO
CANDIDATES FROM THE SAME PARTY.”
Is the power of party bosses really so great in
California that voters feel disenfranchised by them? The 17% who
registered as “Declined to State” obviously don’t feel that way.
Does a race made up of two candidates from the same
party really limit voter choice? Imagine, for example, that gubernatorial
candidates Richard Riordan and Bill Simon defeated Gray Davis in the 2002
primary and made it to November ballot. Now, that’s a genuine choice.
Yes, imagine that. Given many Democrats’
dissatisfaction with Davis as governor, they might have swung the vote to
Riordan in a nonpartisan primary… and again in the final election.
In case you haven’t noticed, one author of the
official argument in favor of Proposition 62 is former LA mayor Richard
Or imagine that Arnold Schwarzenegger is running for
re-election under the present closed primary system. Given California
Republicans’ predilection for conservative candidates, a moderate like the
present governor might not make it into the general election.
In case you haven’t noticed, the website for the
California Performance Review, Schwarzenegger’s stab at reforming the
state government, prominently displays a
column by Jill Stewart touting Prop. 62. Stewart writes, “”Prop. 62
would lure our disgusted moderate and swing voters back to the polls.
That, in turn, would attract normal people [i.e., Schwarzenegger] to run
for office, pushing out hard-left Democrats and hard-right Republicans,
hacks who thrive on gridlock.”
In case you haven’t noticed, many of the major donors
to the Californians for an Open Primary PAC — including former state
senator Rebecca Q. Morgan, businessman F. Warren Hellman, Richard J.
Riordan, Carly Fiorina of Hewlett-Packard, Eli Broad of AIG Sun America,
and businesswoman Elizabeth Rogers — served on Schwarzenegger’s transition
Californians love to re-invent the wheel, and Prop.
62 has created a big fat one. For the past century, politicians and voters
have tinkered with the state electoral system. They may never get it
right. Every time somebody sticks on a patch, a leak appears on the other
California’s first primary election took place in
1910, at a time when party machines carefully controlled nominations. What
a revolutionary concept — allowing the voters to select candidates
directly! Almost immediately, the form of the primary climbed onto a
seesaw: at first, party membership was required of voters; then
cross-filing (running on more than one party ticket) or nonpartisan
primaries took over; then the closed primary returned once again.
In 1958, write political scientists
Brian J. Gaines and Wendy K. Tam Cho, voters elected “the first
unified Democratic control of California of the twentieth century, and
Governor Pat Brown and the legislature wasted little time in abolishing
cross-filing,” a system that many people believed favored the Republicans.
(On the other side of the coin, the state of Alaska recently ran
completely open primaries; in 2001, after the Republicans captured the
state capital, they instituted a tightly closed system instead.)
Then in 1996, the seesaw slanted in the other
direction in California. Voters passed Proposition 198 by 60%,
establishing once again an open primary system, in which Democrats could
vote for Republicans, Greens could vote for Democrats, Independents could
vote for Greens, whatever.
Once again, use your imagination. Imagine that, in
1992, moderate Republican Tom Campbell felt that he could successfully
challenge left-leaning Barbara Boxer for her seat in the U.S. Senate. But
given the nature of the Republican Party, Campbell lost in the primary to
the more conservative Bruce Hershenson, and Boxer was reelected. Sound
In case you didn’t notice at the time, one of the
main sponsors of Prop. 198 was Tom Campbell.
Prop. 198 wasn’t long for this world. In 2000 the
U.S. Supreme Court ruled the measure was unconstitutional, on the grounds
that allowing people outside a party to vote for its candidates
essentially allows “nonparty members to hijack the party.”
But, added Justice Antonin Scalia,
+++++Respondents could protect [state interests] by
resorting to a nonpartisan blanket primary. Generally speaking,
under such a system, the State determines what qualifications it requires
for a candidate to have a place on the primary ballot — which may include
nomination by established parties and voter-petition requirements for
independent candidates. Each voter, regardless of party affiliation, may
then vote for any candidate, and the top two vote getters (or however many
the State prescribes) then move on to the general election. This system
has all the characteristics of the partisan blanket primary, save the
constitutionally crucial one: Primary voters are not choosing a party's
nominee. Under a nonpartisan blanket primary, a State may ensure more
choice, greater participation, increased "privacy," and a sense of
"fairness" — all without severely burdening a political party's First
Amendment right of association.
In other words, Prop. 62, in which the “primary” —
traditionally an election held in the spring to nominate the candidate of
each party — becomes simply the first round of an election, with the
runoff held several months later.
Supporters of Prop. 62 say that the measure will:
- open up California’s elections process
- expand voter choices
- increase voter participation
- create more competition in elections
- make more accountable our state’s elected
officials, so they are responsive to all voters — not just the
special interests and those at the ideological extremes
Maybe. And maybe it will fix flat tires and cure the
But it will not correct the electoral imbalance that
comes from drawing district boundaries to accommodate incumbents.
It will not correct the faulty representation that
comes from choosing officials in winner-take-all elections.
It will not foster the atmosphere of political
diversity that comes from allowing minor parties to flourish.