SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Could voters in the nation's biggest state fundamentally change the way their executive, legislative and congressional delegations are chosen?
If the polls are to be believed, California voters will do precisely that when they take up a measure on the June 8 primary ballot that would restructure the state's primary system. While issues of election procedure typically rank low on voters' agendas, the unprecedentedly sour mood about California government may bolster the measure, which is officially known as Proposition 14.
That proposition would establish a "nonpartisan blanket primary" for legislative and congressional seats and statewide offices such as governor and attorney general. It's similar to the way Californians already elect local government officials, and it's based on a system used in Washington State that has passed constitutional muster with the U.S. Supreme Court.
In the first round, all voters would receive a single ballot listing all candidates, indentified by party (or non-party status.) The top two finishers, even if they are from the same party, advance to the general election. The idea is to weaken the effect of closed partisan primaries that reward candidates on the far end of the ideological spectrum — those attractive to each party's "base" — and to offer a greater chance to centrists who might present a viable general election candidacy but lack a critical mass of support within closed party ranks.
Centrists would have the benefit of primary votes from so-called "decline to state" (independent) voters who currently have little influence on the nomination process. And having access to a larger base of voters could weaken the power of big-money interests that today wield power in the smaller universe of party activists who get involved in primary elections. Meanwhile, in solidly one-party districts, the new primary system could provide heightened political competition by encouraging primary challenges to entrenched incumbents who now are able to skate to victory in a general election against a weak minority-party candidate.
"Next to getting rid of term limits, it is probably the most significant reform you can do to loosen up the legislature," says A.G. Block, the former editor of California Journal who is now affiliated with the University of California Center at Sacramento.
For years, critics have blamed California's primary system for aggravating the state's intense partisanship and general political paralysis, which in recent years has included a toxic mix of soaring deficits, depleted state treasuries and marathon legislative stalemates. Primaries aren't the only target of reformers — voters have already approved a ballot reform measure that will strip legislators of the power to gerrymander their own district lines beginning in 2012, and the idea of easing the state's strict term limit law is perennially under discussion. But primary reform is the one urgent issue of the moment.
"The business community in California has concluded that we have a dysfunctional state government and certainly a dysfunctional legislature," says Bill Hauck, president of the California Business Roundtable. "There's no single thing that will fix that — it's probably a series of things — but you need a functional 'board of directors.' Right now, the state's board of directors is not functional."
Critics complain that the closed primary system has pushed the Republican Party to the right and the Democratic Party to the left, effectively cutting out more pragmatic politicians who could work across the aisle to tackle the state's mounting fiscal problems. "In a Republican primary, the candidates are all expected to take 'no new taxes' pledges; in a Democratic primary they are expected to oppose all cuts involving core Democratic constituencies," argues a report by California Forward, a group that laid much of the groundwork for the primary reform effort. "That is the road to success, often abetted by low turnout and independent expenditures."
Then there's the fate of independent, or "decline to state" voters. Currently, they can vote in partisan primaries, but even though they don't face much of a bureaucratic hassle, relatively few have chosen to do so. In the June 2008 primary, for instance, about 30 percent of registered Democrats voted and roughly 33 percent of registered Republicans took part — but that outpaced a dismal 14 percent for decline-to-state voters.
To be sure, not everyone agrees with Proposition 14. It's opposed by the two main party organizations, which stand to lose influence if it passes, and by smaller parties, which fear that a party-skipping "top-two" system could cut them out of a spot on the ballot in November, when substantially more voters tend to turn out.
Meanwhile, some political scientists aren't wild about the idea, arguing that it could lead to quirky results — say, situations in which two Democrats end up contesting the general election in a solidly Republican district because too many Republicans split the primary vote. In addition, the proposed system could encourage mischief, with, say, Democrats strategically voting for the weakest Republican candidate in the primary.
Does It Work?
Some critics add that the two states that have tried a similar approach — Louisiana, which has had an open primary in place since 1975, and Washington State, which implemented its current version before the 2008 election — are not proving themselves to be stellar role models.
In Louisiana, the system helped the candidacies of white supremacist David Duke for a U.S. Senate seat and a gubernatorial race. "This system has not worked all that well here," says Pearson Cross, a Louisiana State (Lafayette) political scientist. "I'm surprised that California would consider it."
Meanwhile, the rap on Washington State's system, at least to some observers, is that it has done next to nothing to promote competitiveness. Of 98 state House races in Washington in 2008, only five were won by four percentage points or less, and of 26 state Senate races, only two were won by a margin that narrow. "That's a level of competition that is no better than what we have now in California," writes Steven Hill, who has studied the issue for the non-partisan New America Foundation.
However, proponents have amassed an array of evidence that they say demonstrates the value of the nonpartisan blanket primary.
Much of this data stems from California's prior experience with a similar — but distinct — system that was used during the 1998 and 2000 cycles, after voter passage of a different measure, Proposition 198. Under that system, voters received a ballot similar to that envisioned under Proposition 14 and could participate in either party's primary. The difference was that the top-finishing Democrat and the top-finishing Republican still advanced to the general election. This format ended after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it violated the First Amendment rights of parties to choose their own nominees. A fully nonpartisan system would likely trump those objections.
Supporters use the 1998 and 2000 data to argue that blanket primaries can boost turnout by decline-to-state voters. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, turnout for the 1998 midterm election was almost 3 percentage points higher than the average of the prior two midterms (1990 and 1994) and more than 6 percentage points higher than the average of the succeeding two (2002 and 2006), which took place after the system had been struck down.
The one recent independent poll that specifically addressed Proposition 14 showed the measure leading, comfortably but not invincibly. It's worth noting that a blanket primary measure also led in polls during a previous effort in 2004, only to fail on the ballot. But interviews with political analysts in California suggest the result could be different this year.
For starters, the pro-Proposition 14 side has better organization and deeper pockets than earlier reform efforts. The "Yes on 14" campaign recently received $500,000 from Arnold Schwarzenegger, the outgoing governor, and $250,000 from Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, putting the yes side far ahead of the opposition, which has yet to show signs of mounting a major push or putting significant money on the table.
Meanwhile, the historical bulwarks of opposition to primary reform — the major parties — are focusing on other matters in 2010, a year in which they will be contesting an open-seat governorship and a competitive U.S. Senate campaign. The parties may not be able to give Prop. 14 the financial or personnel resources they otherwise might be expected to provide. "I don't think that it is a priority among party leadership at this point," says Harvey Englander, a Los Angeles-based consultant who has advised both Democrats and moderate Republicans.
In addition, the state's media seem to be lining up behind the drive for change. "Most editorial opinion will be in favor, as nearly all the major papers view increased partisanship in the legislature as a problem and see Prop. 14 as a means of rolling such partisanship back," says Tim Hodson, of the Sacramento State Center for California Studies.
Meanwhile, polls have registered record or near-record levels of voter dissatisfaction — a factor that could help nurture a favorable environment for Proposition 14. In a Field Poll taken in January, 79 percent of Californians said their state was seriously off on the wrong track, compared to just 14 percent who felt it was moving in the right direction.
"I think it will pass this time," says Garry South, a veteran Democratic strategist. "There's no real organized or moneyed opposition."