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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 election?”

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 Riordan.

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 team.

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 side.

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 familiar?

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 common cold.

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.