California open primaries? Give them a chance

Capitol Journal

Paralytic party partisanship in Sacramento can’t be cured by an open primary system alone, but it could commence the treatment.

That’s the conclusion one can glean from a report released Wednesday night by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California.

“An open primary doesn’t guarantee that we’re going to have a more moderate Legislature, but it’s more likely,” says the report’s author, Eric McGhee, a research fellow at the institute.

“People should temper their expectations. It’s not a panacea for partisanship.”

McGhee analyzed the arguments for and against Prop. 14 on the June ballot. The measure would create an open primary system -- called a “top-two” primary -- that would replace party nominating elections, except for president.

Starting in 2012, there would be only one primary ballot, and it would be open to all candidates and voters. The top two vote-getters, regardless of party, would advance to the general election, similar to the way local officials are elected in California.

In a heavily Democratic legislative district, it’s possible that the runoff could pit two Democrats against each other -- one a liberal, the other more moderate. Ditto a district dominated by GOP voters -- a conservative against a centrist. It’s not inconceivable that a Green Party candidate could wind up in a San Francisco runoff, or a Libertarian in an Orange County general election.

But the vast majority of runoffs would involve a traditional matchup between a Democrat and a Republican. Third-party candidates would take their shot in the primary instead of the general election. Candidates could designate a party “preference” on the ballot -- placing, for example, a “D” or “R” beside their names.

The goal is to force candidates to appeal to a wider range of voters than they currently do in party primaries dominated by ideologues. The idea is to elect more pragmatic moderates, especially to the frequently gridlocked Legislature.

Under the current semi-closed primary system, people registered Decline to State -- independents -- are allowed to cast either a Democratic or Republican ballot, but relatively few do.

Party officials despise any form of open primary because they fear losing power, as if they’ve ever had much in California anyway. But party conventions still could endorse candidates.

Researcher McGhee examined top-two state primary systems in Washington and Louisiana. And he reviewed California’s brief experiment with another form of open primary -- a “blanket ballot” system -- in the 1998 and 2000 elections.

Under the blanket system, there was one ballot that listed all candidates of every party. Any registered voter could weigh in. A Democratic voter, for example, could help select the Republican nominee.

The parties sued and won. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed that each party had a right to bar nonmembers from their nominating process. The new top-two version gets around that by eliminating nominations altogether. It’s identical to the Washington state system that has been approved by the Supreme Court.

Prop. 14’s “constitutionality is not in serious doubt,” the institute report says.

McGhee recalls that California’s adoption of the blanket primary “sent shock waves through the political community.”

It didn’t last long enough, however, to have much impact. The researcher found only “a slight advantage” for moderate legislative candidates. “Moderates were more likely to be elected to the Assembly [and] voting in the Assembly was more bipartisan during those years.”

But “there was no comparable effect in the state Senate.”

There are two explanations that come to mind: The Senate has fewer elections and less turnover. And in that era, liberal John Burton of San Francisco was the Senate leader.

Nonpartisan primaries, such as proposed by Prop. 14, “do sometimes have a moderating effect,” the researcher writes.

McGhee assessed the claim of open primary opponents that one party might engage in mischief by orchestrating a vote for the rival party’s weakest candidate. But that wasn’t common on California’s blanket ballots, the researcher found.

Supporters contend that open primaries produce larger turnouts, McGhee notes, “because voters who feel left out under the current system would have a reason to show up at the polls.” He concludes, “there is some evidence to support this claim” based on the blanket primaries.

Opponents argue that an open primary would increase the cost of campaigning -- and thus the influence of bankrolling special interests -- because candidates would need to reach more voters. The researcher disputes that theory. Expenses did increase during blanket primaries, he says, “but at a rate consistent with the broader trend in campaign spending.”

One current example of the need for an open primary and less party partisanship is the Assembly Democrats’ lining up against the confirmation of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s nominee for lieutenant governor, Republican Sen. Abel Maldonado of Santa Maria.

Ironically, Maldonado is responsible for pushing Prop. 14 onto the ballot. And that’s particularly offensive to Democratic politicians.

An open primary “will be unlikely to change California politics overnight,” McGhee writes. “There may be a long period of adjustment before the state arrives at a new, potentially more moderate equilibrium.”

Fine. The body politic is sick and suffering. Let the healing begin.