Voters approve California open primary


California voters went to the polls Tuesday and recast future elections in the state by passing a ballot measure that creates open primaries, one of five propositions on the ballot.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who championed the open-primary measure, called its passage a “historic change” that “sends a clear message that Californians are tired of partisan gridlock and dysfunction.”

At the same time, votes appeared to be falling far short for an experiment in state-financed political campaigns, while tax breaks for buildings retrofitted for earthquake safety passed by a wide margin.

Two other initiatives put on the ballot by major corporations — Proposition 16, requiring voter approval before cities can get into

the electricity business,

and Proposition 17, giving auto insurance companies more leeway in setting rates — were locked in close races.

Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watch, said he was heartened that those propositions were so close despite tens of millions spent by companies that would benefit.

“I think it says the electorate isn’t as stupid as the corporations think it is,” Court said.

Under an open primary system, voters will no longer be limited to choosing among candidates from their own parties. Proposition 14 puts the top two vote-getters in primary races for congressional, state legislative and statewide offices, regardless of political party, in a face-off in the general election.

Backers of the measure said the shift would produce more moderate candidates because they would have to appeal to a wider group of voters.

The state Democratic and Republican parties opposed the change, as did minor parties.

“It will lead to a spike in backroom deal making [and] fewer candidates to choose from,” said Ron Nehring, state GOP chairman.

Voters were also asked to decide on another proposed change in elections: Proposition 15 would establish an experiment to test public funding for campaigns. The measure, pushed by Common Cause, would allow candidates for secretary of state in the next two elections to receive government funding for their campaigns if they agreed to spending limits.

Secretary of state candidates in the 2014 and 2018 elections who demonstrated viability by receiving $5 donations from 7,500 registered voters would get at least $1 million in state funds for the primary election.

The proposition also would bar special interests from writing big campaign checks to participating politicians, in an effort to reduce the influence of those contributors.

The measure would repeal a ban on the use of public funds for state political campaigns, raising most of the money by increasing a state fee charged to lobbyists and their clients.

The California Chamber of Commerce and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. opposed Proposition 15, arguing that it would open the door to tapping other public funding, beyond lobbyist fees, for political campaigns.

“With a $20-billion [state] budget shortfall, it’s a horrible idea,” said Richard Wiebe, a spokesman for the opposition campaign.

Pacific Gas and Electric Co. spent $46 million on its campaign for Proposition 16, which would require local government agencies to obtain approval of two-thirds of voters before providing electricity service to new customers. The measure also would call for a two-thirds vote before the expansion of service beyond current coverage areas if public funds or bonds were used.

“We think people should have a right to vote when local governments spend their money to go into the electric utility business,” said Robin Swanson, a spokeswoman for the campaign.

The measure was opposed by groups including Consumer Watchdog, which said that PG&E was just protecting its turf and that electricity customers would suffer. Late Tuesday, Proposition 16 appeared to be lagging badly in PG&E service areas.

Proposition 17 would allow automobile insurance companies to base their prices in part on a driver’s history of insurance coverage, authorizing discounts for those who have kept their coverage even if they changed insurance companies.

The measure, on which Mercury Insurance spent $16 million, would allow insurance companies to increase the cost of insurance for drivers who have not maintained continuous insurance coverage.

The least controversial measure on Tuesday’s ballot was Proposition 13 which provides that certain construction projects to make buildings safer during earthquakes will not trigger reassessments that could increase property taxes on the structures.