Voters passed potentially risky open primaries but defeated the one measure that would have a positive impact on our political system
By Barry Gordon 06/17/2010
Recently, George Skelton wrote an article in the Los Angeles Times in which he praised California voters for “overhauling a state political system that produces hyper-partisanship and gridlock in Sacramento.” I agree with much of what he writes, including his support of the Citizens’ Redistricting Commission created by Proposition 11 and his description of the two-thirds vote requirement for tax increases under Proposition 13 as “undemocratic.”
However, on the recently passed Proposition 14, establishing an “open” primary system in California, George and I part ways. According to George, the “goal” is to force candidates to “appeal to a wider range of voters than merely the ideologues in their own parties.” It sounds pretty good on paper — no doubt the reason it passed. But “on paper” and “in real life” are not always the same.
Here’s the theory. Say there’s a heavily Democratic district where a Republican has virtually no chance in the general election (I’m using this example because there are far more heavily Democratic districts in the state than heavily Republican districts). In the June primary, two Democrats are chosen to compete in the general election. Candidate A is a far-left, same-sex-marriage-loving, ACLU-card-carrying, tax-and-spend liberal. Candidate B is center-left, pro-choice and slightly more fiscally conservative than Candidate A. So naturally, Republicans will come out in droves to ensure that the center-left candidate defeats the far-lefty. After all, it’s the only choice they have, right?
Not really. They could stay home. After all, the Republicans took their best shot in June, and they are effectively disenfranchised in the November election. Will a Republican really leave work early to vote for the slightly less liberal candidate? Probably not. What is more likely is that while turnout may increase in June (or may not), turnout from the party that got shut out in the primary will plummet, leaving the field to Democratic party activists who will have nothing to lose at that point by electing the far-left candidate.
The utopian idea is that we will have more moderates in office who will be willing to compromise and make tough choices. A study by the Center for Governmental Studies suggests that in very close races, the more moderate candidate may well prevail. But the very idea of moderation is in the eyes of the beholder. Where the most conservative Democrat is still considerably to the ideological left of the most moderate Republican (there really are no “liberal” Republicans), will the “moderate” candidate really be viewed as a moderate by Republican standards?
Somehow, the villain in all of the recent reforms at both the state and national level seems to be the political parties. Get rid of the influence of parties and all will be well. But political parties exist for many purposes, not the least of which is to provide a basis for the voter’s decision-making. My party’s platform may not always contain everything I like, but, for the most part, it reflects my fundamental values, and most candidates from my party embrace similar values. So when I see a “D” next to someone’s name — or when you see an “R” — I generally know what I’m getting.
In the absence of strong political parties, what’s left? MONEY. The irony of last week’s election is that while the voters passed this potentially risky experiment in democracy, it defeated the one measure that would truly have a positive impact on our political system: Public financing of elections. Proposition 15 would have created a pilot program for public financing by restricting it only to the election of the Secretary of State, who arguably should be the least tainted by special interest money since he or she is responsible for the integrity of our entire electoral process. Yet the voters saw the words “tax increase” and ran for the woods. Actually, the measure would have been funded by an increased registration fee for lobbyists and by “voluntary tax check-offs” on state income tax forms, according to the nonpartisan legislative analyst. In other words, the opponents (mostly funded by lobbyists) lied.
We have already seen the influence of money in California politics in 2010. Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina both arguably bought their way to the top of the list. Back in April, Abel Maldonado, the current Republican lieutenant governor and godfather of Proposition 14, touted his proposal on “The Colbert Report,” insisting that the “best two” would “get to go to the finals” like in athletic competitions. Colbert then asked, “Is there anything in this bill that keeps people from spending unlimited amounts of money on advertising to win?” When Maldonado answered “No,” Colbert smiled and said, “Then I’m all for it. It will be the two richest guys.” Or gals.
In the absence of money, the key will be name recognition. Is Jerry Brown really the best candidate Democrats have or just the most well-known? Louisiana is one of two other states that have the same system Californians just established, only there it is called a “nonpartisan blanket primary” (For more information on the perverse results of the Louisiana system, click the link to see an excellent study by Fair Vote). In 1991, the top two candidates for governor were Edwin Edwards, a former governor already suspected of corruption (and later sent to prison), and David Duke, a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan. The best two?
So much for utopia.
Barry Gordon teaches political science at Cal State LA and is the co-host of “City Beat” on KPAS. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.