Proposition 14, the Open Primary

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What happens to ossified Sacramento if California voters get to
shop around?

State Democratic and Republican leaders were
undoubtedly disturbed and annoyed last week, but it had nothing to do
with California’s $20 billion budget deficit. Instead, the politicians
faced a different kind of bad news: On Tuesday, June 8, voters of every
ideological stripe — from conservatives to moderates to liberals –
overwhelmingly intend to change the way the political establishment does
its business.

"There’s a lot of public dissatisfaction with our
governor, our president and our state Legislature," says Mark
Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute of California, a
nonpartisan, nonprofit think tank based in San Francisco. "They want to
shake up the status quo."

And according to a new PPIC poll, 60
percent of likely voters think Proposition 14 — the ballot measure that
promises to create an "open" primary system — may just be the tool to do
some major rattling.

Proposition 14 allows anyone, regardless
of party affiliation, to vote for a candidate of their choosing in a
given primary — a registered Democrat, for example, could vote for a
Republican running for the California Senate. Then, the top two
vote-getters from the primary would face each other in a run-off. So if a
Republican and a Green Party candidate win the two slots in the spring,
no Democrat appears on the November ballot in the general election. And
if a Libertarian and Democrat win the most votes in the primary, no
Republican appears on the general-election ballot.

Few voters
realize it, but for years many of the key candidates for Legislature
during the primary have been hand-selected by insiders at the California
Republican and Democratic parties — a murky, often vicious process that
many critics say has produced a generation of predigested, hack
politicians who can’t think for themselves.

"Proposition 14 will
have a definite impact on the state," says Tim Hodson, executive
director of the Center for California Studies at Sacramento State
University, "and probably a good one."

Proposition 14,
interestingly, made its way on the ballot thanks to an insider’s
political deal, not via grassroots reform groups bent on change. Last
year, state Sen. Abel Maldonado, a moderate Republican from Santa Maria
who’s now lieutenant governor, created a firestorm by jumping the
political aisle to vote for higher taxes and casting the crucial "yes"
vote for an overdue state budget backed by the Democrats.

exacted a high price from Democrats for agreeing to betray the antitax
GOP: He forced Democratic leaders, who have squelched many efforts to
bring the open primary system to California, to reluctantly agree to put
the question before voters in June. They did, and they are now hotly
opposing the measure.

Maldonado and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger
are arguing that Prop. 14 will help bring "reasonable, open-minded,
pragmatic" lawmakers to the state capital, where hard-core partisan
politics reigns and, Maldonado says, too often causes Democratic and
Republican legislators to "do what’s right for our party, not what’s
right for California."

Deep ideological divisions between
toe-the-line legislators in the two parties have created a warring
statehouse — the 120-member Legislature is typified by hotheads like
Assembly Speaker John Perez of Los Angeles — that doesn’t reflect actual
Californians, most of whom are moderates. "The argument is that
moderates are willing to reach moderate, principled compromises," says
Hodson, "rather than standing in the corner and refusing to play."

14 is backed by the Los Angeles Times and The Sacramento
, the California Chamber of Commerce, the California Police
Chiefs Association and the California chapter of the American
Association of Retired Persons (AARP), among others.

"We have
really significant problems with the [state] budget," says Jeannine
English, a national board member of AARP and former president of
California AARP, who co-chairs the "Yes on 14" campaign, "and we can’t
get our politicians to address those long-term issues."

reasons that less than a third of voters bother to go to the polls
during the primary because the existing system actually "encourages
people not to vote." Instead, the most partisan voters stream to the
polls, choosing highly partisan Democrats or Republicans. Today, only a
half-dozen moderates hold seats in the California Legislature. Most
legislators "don’t respond to the needs of a large portion of voters,"
says English.

Opposing Prop. 14 are both Democratic and
Republican party leaders, the Green Party, the ACLU of Southern
California, the California Labor Federation and the California Teachers
Association, among others. These groups think Prop. 14 is an awful idea
for a host of reasons.

"It’s the political cleansing of
candidates," charges Christina Tobin, chair of the "No on 14" campaign.
She fears that if voters are allowed to cross party lines during the
primary, they’ll place candidates on the November ballot who stand for
nothing and cater to the middle-of-the-road vote. And she argues that
third-party candidates, such as the Libertarian and Green parties, will
face nearly impossible obstacles. (Tobin happens to be running for
secretary of state as the Libertarian candidate.)

Dan Schnur, a
Republican strategist and director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of
Politics at USC, agrees that "smaller political parties could be

But for the dug-in Democratic and Republican
establishments, says longtime Democratic consultant Bill Carrick,
there’s an underlying fear of change: The Democratic majority has
controlled the upper and lower houses of the Legislature almost every
year since 1958, when Dwight D. Eisenhower was president. Republicans
are equally entrenched — as the vocal minority that fights taxes and
holds up budgets.

Moderate Republicans such as Schwarzenegger
and Maldonado hope the open primary system will break the Democratic
stranglehold and usher in at least a few more moderate Republicans.

Carrick says "Schwarzenegger and other moderate Republicans think
[Prop. 14] will be a fix" — by allowing fiscally concerned, more
moderate Democratic voters to help elect moderate fiscal watchdogs,
either Republican or Democrat.

Carrick calls that a fantasy.
Still, he sees Prop. 14 passing in June. "There’s so much anger about
Sacramento and the state Legislature," he says, "and people are going to
vote for it. It’s something that has a lot of appeal for the average
voter. They’ll say, ‘Hey, open is good, more choices are good.’"

the "top two" rule, though, voting districts with little political
diversity — such as heavily Democratic Los Angeles, where no
Republicans, Greens or Libertarians get much support — are likely to
choose two Democrats to face each other in the general election. In San
Diego, the top-two rule could create the opposite situation: Two
Republicans would face each other in November.

Nobody knows what
these same-party opponents will do to distinguish themselves in the
general election. And that kind of change strikes fear into the two big

Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog, a
nonprofit consumer-advocacy group that regularly deals with the state
Legislature, thinks fear is a good thing. "I believe in the power of
fear to get progressive change," says Court. "Right now, there are too
many safe seats occupied by unresponsive politicians."

whose outfit has no position on Prop. 14, says, "The more politicians
worry at every stage of the election process, the more good it will be
for the public."

The politicians must be worried. Already,
political analysts are suggesting that the Democratic and Republican
parties will scheme to declaw the law if it passes — possibly by
hand-selecting several candidates for each primary race, and persuading
some of them to campaign as if they are independent-minded moderates.

At the end of the day, though, Court reasons, "Any time both
parties come out against something, it’s probably a good thing to vote

Contact Patrick Range McDonald at [email protected]m.

Consumer Watchdog
Consumer Watchdog
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