Prop. 14 promises political sea change
Voters’ approval Tuesday of an open primary system, combined with their 2008 decision to strip state lawmakers of the power to draw their own election districts, will reshape California politics. The question is: How?
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who backed both moves, is confident that state elections will become more daunting for the rigid partisans he says plague Sacramento. Other politicians and election strategists are not so sure.
The new system will put candidates of all political stripes on a single ballot, and all voters will be able to participate. The top two vote-getters in a given contest -- regardless of political affiliation -- will advance to the general election. Supporters say that once the system is in place and voting districts have been redrawn outside of the Legislature, candidates will have no choice but to move to the middle as they compete for voters who are more politically diverse.
“Coupled with redistricting, Proposition 14 will change the political landscape in California -- finally giving voters the power to truly hold politicians accountable,” Schwarzenegger said after declaring victory late Tuesday. Proposition 14 passed with 54.2% of the vote.
But party leaders, as well as some political analysts and election experts -- admittedly with a vested interest in the status quo -- offer a number of reasons that Proposition 14 could do the opposite of what Schwarzenegger suggests.
They say it could push California back to the days when candidates were picked by party bosses in smoke-filled rooms and send the cost of campaigns sky-high, giving special interests more power and wealthy candidates more of an advantage. The new system could even further disenfranchise candidates who are trying to break free of the special interests that have a grip on government, they say.
“This is a process that lends itself to back-room dealing, to big decisions being made by small groups of people,” said California Republican Party Chairman Ron Nehring.
In cases where two strong Republicans are running against one another, he said, party leaders may pressure one of them out of the race to avoid any risk of splitting the vote and creating an opportunity for other candidates to advance.
“We’ll be forced to turn to nominating conventions,” Nehring said.
Under his scenario, instead of millions of registered Republicans choosing the GOP’s gubernatorial candidate, the task would fall to a relative handful of party loyalists.
Other opponents say the new system is possibly unconstitutional, and they are scrambling to assess their options to challenge it in court.
Elections expert Alan Clayton said open primaries will make some campaigns more costly. Currently, the winner of a partisan primary in a safely drawn district doesn’t face a big expense in the general election, Clayton said , and that scenario may no longer be possible in some districts.
A new emphasis on money could give an advantage to wealthy candidates and hurt minority contenders with more limited funds, said Clayton, who represented groups, including the Los Angeles County Chicano Employees Assn., in the redistricting process.
State Democratic Party Chairman John Burton said anything that requires more fundraising is not good for state politics: It “means there’s more money that will have to be raised, and that doesn’t come from little old ladies, that comes from special interests.”
The new process could also disenfranchise candidates from smaller political parties, so those groups are weighing a possible court challenge, said Cres Vellucci, a spokesman for the Green Party of California.
“We would not be on the November ballot in the top two, and that’s the election that counts,” Vellucci said. “People don’t vote in the primaries. They vote in the majors.”
An analysis by the nonpartisan Center for Governmental Studies concluded recently that more than a third of all state legislative and congressional races could produce runoffs between two members of the same party and that nearly all of those races would feature two Democrats.
The Los Angeles-based group said there may be some races in which a “top two, same party” general election contest could be close enough that voters from another party, or decline-to-state voters, could swing the election to the more moderate candidate.
Backers of the open primary measure said the current system promotes partisan bickering that caused last year’s state budget to be delayed by weeks, forcing officials to stop cash payments to vendors and issue IOUs.
“For too long, running for office in California has meant pandering to your party’s narrow base, and it’s just to win that primary, and then you are basically a shoo-in,” said Jeannine English, state leader with AARP. The result, she said, is “elected officials who are locked into inflexible ideological positions that make it impossible for them to work together for solutions to get California back on track.”
But, there is some skepticism among political scientists, including Jaime Regalado, executive director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State L.A.
“I don’t think Proposition 14 is going to make a fundamental difference in candidates elected and whether there will be a less polarized Sacramento,” said Regalado, who foresees unions and political parties continuing to elect their favorites. But the effect could be magnified when combined with the change in redistricting.
Two years ago, state voters gave the job of drawing legislative districts to a panel of citizens: five Democrats, five Republicans and four members of neither main party. That panel is to be picked by year’s end.