Yes on Prop. 14

Proposition 14 won’t cure all of California’s political ills — that’s too big a task for any single initiative. But it’s a modest step toward eliminating some of the incentives that encourage our representatives to dig in and resist sensible compromise, even when they know it’s in the state’s best interest. That’s enough to merit its passage. We endorse Proposition 14.

We do so even though both its critics and its principal supporters are doing a poor job of explaining the proposition. It will not, as state Sen. Abel Maldonado (R-Santa Maria) and other supporters would have one believe, singlehandedly put an end to California’s gridlock. Nor will it wipe out the political parties, as party officials and their union allies argue in their sub-rosa campaign to defeat the measure.

Here’s what it would do. Today, Californians vote for most offices in two stages: In primary contests, voters from each party select the candidate they believe will best represent their party in a general election. The winners of those primaries then face off in a general election, and the winner takes the seat. If Proposition 14 passes, Californians will still participate in two-stage elections. But instead of a party primary, the first stage would be a contest in which candidates from any party — or no party — could participate. The top two finishers in the first stage, even if they are from the same party, would move to a runoff election, and the winner of that election would get the office. Races for Congress, the Legislature and statewide offices would all be governed by the new rules; those for local offices and the presidency would not.

For Los Angeles voters, passage of the proposition would bring some familiar changes, as it is quite similar to the way this city has for years elected its officers. (There is one small difference: In a Los Angeles election, if any candidate gets more than half the votes in the first round, he or she is declared the winner and there is no runoff.) It is a meaningful reform and one that might help make Sacramento slightly less fractious than it is today.

That’s because today’s primary system, as it exists in California, creates few incentives for liberals and conservatives to work with each other. All party primaries tend to bring out committed voters who generally are more extreme than the mainstream of their parties. In California, however, that is compounded by a districting system that protects incumbents by creating seats dominated by one party or the other. Because most districts feature little real competition between the parties, Democratic officeholders fear that if they compromise with Republicans, they might be knocked off by a challenger from their left; conversely, Republicans know they too are safe from the left, but worry that a more conservative challenger might upset them by rallying that base. These are not irrational fears; retribution for unorthodoxy is coin of the realm in Sacramento, and California politics is littered with the remains of politicians who dared to break ranks in order to do what they perceived as best for the state.

So politicians size up the risks and act accordingly: Democrats tack left and refuse to cut programs; Republicans lean right and refuse to raise taxes. Sacramento bogs down, and California sinks deeper into the mire.

It hasn’t always been so. Through much of the early 20th century, California candidates were allowed to “cross-file,” or seek the nomination not just of their own party but that of others. Cross-filing was one of the many Progressive-era inventions intended to democratize state politics, and it had profound effects on California parties and voting. Although state registration was heavily Democratic in the 1940s, Earl Warren ran as a centrist Republican and won the governorship in 1942. In 1946, he filed for the Republican nomination as well as that of the Democratic Party. He won both, a vindication of his commitment to nonpartisanship.

In contrast to today’s gridlock, those mid-century years in which Warren, Goddy Knight and Pat Brown served as governors were extravagantly successful for the state. Budgets boomed. The state registered surpluses while cutting taxes. The state’s highway and university systems were built, and the foundations were laid for some of its great water projects. Cross-filing alone did not achieve that, but it helped foster a political atmosphere in Sacramento that reinforced achievement over stridency.

The open primary envisioned by Proposition 14 is not cross-filing, but it’s within that tradition. It won’t eliminate partisan districts — don’t wait for a Republican surge in Santa Monica or a Democratic upset in Simi Valley — nor should it. The solution to California’s problems is not the elimination of ideological or partisan differences, and the state’s political geography — liberals generally clustered along the coast, conservatives dominant in the inland valleys — won’t be dramatically affected by new voting rules. California happily will remain a diverse and disputatious place.

But a politician who wants to be reelected under Proposition 14 rules would face different pressures, some of which could induce constructive behavior. A Democrat running for office in, say, the San Fernando Valley might seek to assemble a record that hewed to the party on major issues but showed enough independence to sway some moderate Republicans. Or a Republican running in northern Orange County might conclude that crossover support from moderate Democrats would be enough to compensate for the loss of conservative support that goes with opposing tough-on-crime measures. If a significant minority of officials from both parties drew those conclusions, California might gradually grope its way back to a politics of achievement rather than posture.

Rules alone do not produce a rational state government, but bad rules can make that harder. California’s current primary system makes rationality all but impossible, so it’s time to dump it over the side. Today’s system results in inflexibility; Proposition 14 can help replace some of that with genuine incentives to govern responsibly. That’s worth supporting. We urge a yes vote on Proposition 14.