A vote not just in, but also about, primaries.
The Economist, 6/3/10.
CALIFORNIANS will go to the polls on June 8th, and as usual they will receive different ballots depending on their party affiliation. The Republican ballot features the most sizzling fights. In the primaries for the gubernatorial election in November, two rich and formerly moderate Silicon Valley tycoons, Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner, have for months been trying to outflank each other on the right to appeal to the party faithful, becoming more extremist than they surely ever intended. Something similar is happening in the Republican primary for the Senate seat to be defended by Barbara Boxer, the Democratic incumbent whom the Republicans consider vulnerable.
These closed and partisan primaries, and their effect of radicalising individuals who once appeared reasonable in private conversations, seem to be the best argument in favour of another measure, one that is on all voters’ ballots. Called Proposition 14, it would amend the state constitution to make primaries open and non-partisan. Under this new system all voters, whether affiliated with a party or not, would receive the same ballot with the same list of candidates. Even the candidates themselves would no longer need to state their party affiliation. The top two vote-getters would then face each other in the general election, even if they belonged to the same party.
The theory is that Proposition 14 will help, or at least stop penalising, moderate politicians, since all candidates would have to appeal to voters across the spectrum from the start of their campaigns. In districts that are reliably Democratic, for example, the two candidates who will face each other in the general election may both be Democrats, but Republican voters could help a conservative or moderate Democrat get to the run-off and then elect him over his more liberal alternative. Voters who are independent or affiliated with the minority party might therefore be encouraged to turn out to vote more often.
The Centre for Governmental Studies, a non-partisan think-tank in Los Angeles, has analysed past elections as though Proposition 14 had already been in place. It found that more than a third of the races for the state legislature or Congress could have produced run-offs between two members of the same party. Almost all of these primaries would have taken place in the liberal San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles and involved only Democrats. And in several cases voters from opposing parties and independents could indeed have produced more moderate winners.
Even just a few such outcomes might have a big effect on California’s notoriously dysfunctional politics. David Crane, the (Democratic) economic adviser to (Republican) governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, says that the Democrats today are owned by the unions, trial lawyers and environmentalists, and the Republicans by prison guards, tax haters and farmers. To break this stalemate, he thinks, “we need an ethical bloc” of even just a few state politicians willing to be practical. Open primaries, he reckons, could deliver that.
California’s model is the state of Washington, where politics have long been comparatively moderate. For almost 70 years until 2003, Washington had “blanket primaries” that gave all voters the same ballot but then chose the leading vote-getter from each party for the run-off. California tried to copy this system in the 1990s but its party bosses, horrified by their loss of power, took the case to the Supreme Court. It ruled that for open primaries to be constitutional they would have to be pure “top two” primaries, which would no longer act as a party nominating process. Washington took the hint and adopted top-two primaries as of the 2008 elections. Voters there seem happy with it.
California tried to do the same in 2004 with a ballot measure virtually identical to this year’s Proposition 14, but voters struck it down. They may have been swayed by their party bosses, who then as now hysterically oppose open primaries as though they spelled the death of political parties.
Since then, however, California has descended into a seemingly endless budget crisis and partisan gridlock. A deal last year for the current year’s budget only came about because three moderate Republicans, including Abel Maldonado, voted with the Democrats to pass it. His condition was that Proposition 14 would be on this month’s ballot. Mr Maldonado instantaneously became an outcast from his party. But Mr Schwarzenegger, also a moderate Republican, thanked him by making him lieutenant-governor.
California’s voters, meanwhile, seem to have changed their minds since 2004. According to a recent poll by the Public Policy Institute of California, only 16% of them approve of the partisan stooges in their state legislature. But 60% are now in favour of Proposition 14 and plan to vote Yes.
Link to full article: http://www.economist.com/node/16274477/