Picture this happening in 2016, when California holds its next presidential primary election:
The Democrats have already determined their candidate for the White House before the campaign arrives in the Golden State, but the Republicans have not. Now imagine that Democrats can vote for any presidential candidate they like, regardless of party. So millions of them vote in the GOP primary, selecting the candidate they think will be easiest to beat in November.
Because the state GOP gives all its national convention delegates to whoever gets the most votes here, that means the candidate Democrats believe weakest now could get the single largest pot of convention delegates and become the prohibitive favorite to be the fall candidate.
Sound unlikely? Well, it could happen if an initiative now in the works qualifies for next fall’s ballot and passes.
Yes, it’s not quite two years since the first widespread trial of California’s “top-two” primary election system that sees the two leading candidates in any first-round election make the runoff, even if they belong to the same political party. It’s also not even two years since the initial crop of legislators and members of Congress were chosen from districts drawn for the first time by a nonpartisan citizens commission.
But the tinkering with California’s election system goes on. The latest proposal is for a “blanket” presidential primary listing all candidates together, regardless of party, with voters of all parties — or no party — able to vote for whomever they like.
This would be a major shift from the 2012 system, which let registered Democrats and Republicans vote only in the primary of their own party, while so-called “decline to state” voters who name no party could vote in the Democratic primary but not the GOP’s.
Those rules were decided on by the parties, not the state. They did not change with the advent of top-two. And the GOP’s decision to close its primary might be one of the reasons the party fared so poorly in that election, for studies show that once voters participate in a party’s primary, they become more likely to support that party’s candidates in the subsequent general election.
The initiative creating the blanket presidential primary does not bill this major change as its central purpose. Rather, it has been advertised as an effort to end taxpayer funding of the various parties’ private elections. One major change it also seeks would be to take votes for the parties’ county central committees off the ballot, no longer compelling county election officials to print or count ballots for those offices.
The measure is pushed by the bipartisan San Diego-based Independent Voter Project, which challenges the legality of using tax money for any partisan activity.
The measure also doesn’t compel a blanket primary, although that would probably be its outcome. The possibility, though, would remain for any party wanting to keep its primary open to no one but its own members to put up the money for separate tallies. Parties could also find other election systems — online voting might be one — that require no public funds.
Both those systems would be expensive, and the cash-strapped California GOP wouldn’t be likely to pursue them. But it might again join with Democrats in a lawsuit to throw out the entire concept of a blanket primary, just as it did in the late 1990s, when the two big parties combined to get the U.S. Supreme Court to toss the blanket system California voters had opted to install for all their elections.
The most likely outcome, though, would be a blanket primary, which both parties detest as much as they hate top-two, which itself gets a first test next year in an election where statewide offices are at stake.
One question arises from all this: Since party affiliation no longer is needed to vote in any state or local elections, what will be the point of party membership if that’s no longer required even for presidential primaries? And if there’s no point in membership, how long can the parties themselves survive?
Email Thomas Elias at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more Elias columns, visit http://californiafocus.net.