Proposition 14: To Stop the Politicians, Vote Yes or No
By Peter Schrag
If you read the arguments for and against Proposition 14, the measure on the June 8 ballot creating “the top two open primary”, you’ll learn from the opponents that it was put there “in the middle of the night” by Arnold Schwarzenegger and a couple of other wily politicians. “Can’t politicians ever do anything,” the opponents say, “without scheming something that’s in their self-interest?”
If you read the supporters you’ll discover that “the politicians would rather stick to their partisan positions and appease the special interests than work together to solve California’s problems…PARTISANSHIP IS RUNNING OUR STATE INTO THE GROUND.” Here a pol, there a pol, everywhere a pol-pol.
In fact, Proposition 14 is a fairly simple measure with a strange past and modest promise. In elections for Congress and all state offices (but not president or party committees), it would allow voters to choose any candidate in a primary “regardless of the candidate’s or voter’s political party preference.” Democrats and independents could vote for Republicans and vice-versa. Nor would candidates have to list a party affiliation.
The two candidates with the most votes, again regardless of party, would face each other in the November election. That would make it highly likely that in a number of districts two Democrats would face off in the general election. Less often, according to a new study from the non-partisan Center for Governmental Studies, it would be Republican against Republican. There just aren’t that many Republican districts.
The hope of the proponents is that in elections where voters can cast ballots for anyone, candidates would have to appeal to a broader spectrum of ideologies and interests, meaning that more moderate, less partisan politicians would win office, men and women more likely to reach compromise and get things done. It would also guarantee the growing percentage of unaffiliated voters a voice in the first round of elections, a privilege that many don’t exercise now, even if the parties choose to allow it.
For better or worse, passage of Proposition 14 would be yet another major step in California’s century-long deconstruction, going back to the Progressive era, of political parties and party influence.
The real ramrod of this measure was Sen. (now Lieut. Gov.) Abel Maldonado, one of the very last of California’s moderate Republicans, who last year made legislative approval of what became Proposition 14 a condition for his vote for a temporary tax increase. If it passes, it might save GOP centrists from becoming an altogether extinct species.
But as the Center’s report points out, since primary candidates would have to reach not only voters in their own party but all voters, including independents and members of third parties, Proposition 14 would therefore almost certainly increase the cost of elections which in turn could well increase the power of deep-pocket campaign contributors. Along the way, it would also create yet more business for political consultants and the sprawling array of campaign operatives associated with them.
Opponents of Proposition 14 include virtually all political party organizations, major and minor, and many public sector unions, nearly all associated with the Democrats. They darkly warn that by allowing candidates to shed party labels, it will deprive voters of a key piece of information, in effect making them stealth candidates
The backers of Proposition 14 point out that separate legislation would require the secretary of state’s website to post the political affiliation of each candidate for each of the ten years prior to the election, giving the voter a way to out the stealth candidates – provided the voter knows and cares.
In the end, the measure, in combination with the state’s new redistricting commission, if it survives, could have some marginal effect in mitigating partisan extremes. But given the state’s social and political demography, the power of interest groups with deep pockets, and the crap shoot of the initiative process, the difference in partisanship is likely to be minimal.
Moreover, as many skeptics point out, the additional voice that independents get in the primaries will be lost to any voter who wants a choice between candidates of different parties in the general election. In some districts the voter may have to choose between two Democrats and, in a few places, between two Republicans. And nowhere would a third party candidate make it to the general election. The Greens, the Libertarians and other third parties would virtually vanish from the ballot.
And, of course, at the beginning at least, Proposition 14 would leave a lot of voters confused. At the primary, they’d face a list of candidates that may be twice as long as the ones on the ballot before, some of them perhaps now running even without a party label. Similarly a lot of election systems may have to be re-jiggered to accommodate the new law.
Given all that shuffling, it’s not surprising that the campaign has produced strange bedfellows – the Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable and moderate politicians of both parties aligned with the AARP and the hospitals in favor; public employee unions and the political parties allied with the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., the ACLU of Northern California and Ralph Nader opposed. They all want to stop the sleazy politicians and the special interests.
Peter Schrag, whose exclusive weekly column appears every Monday in the California Progress Report, is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future and California: America’s High Stakes Experiment. His new book, Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America is now on sale.