Thomas D. Elias: Was June 3 vote the last truly partisan primary?
Take a good look at your ballot from the June 3 primary election. It just might be the last truly partisan ballot ever seen in California.
Even though the state Democratic Party allows registered independents to vote in its primaries, Republicans right now do not. But neither Democrats nor Republicans can participate in each other’s selection process.
For both parties, this means the extremes of right or left essentially decide who will represent each congressional or legislative district. It means the broad middle ground gets little attention in today’s politics and that compromises are harder to work out than ever before.
Things work out that way because with a combination of today’s population patterns and highly gerrymandered districts, there usually are almost no seriously contested runoff races below the statewide level in the November general elections. This year will be no different. Where seats are changing hands, their future occupants will be determined in the primary, not later, with only a very few exceptions.
Here’s why that’s simply not fair: While in most Democratic-dominated districts, the majority of that party’s voters tend to back extreme liberals, and the majority of voters in those districts is almost always some combination of Republicans and voters who decline to state a party affiliation. Things are a mirror image in Republican districts, where the right-wing dominates primary elections, but the majority of voters is generally some combination of Democrats and decline-to-staters. So most members of Congress and the Legislature don’t really represent the majority of their constituents.
Two things are clear about this: political parties like it, but most voters don’t.
And now, finally, the majority might get its way, with the result that California at long last gets true majority rule.
It’s clear that voters dislike the current rule-by-party-extremes and the lockstep party-line voting it causes. The one-time voters had their say on this issue – in March 1996, they opted by a 56-44 percent yes vote on Proposition 198 to set up open, “blanket” primary elections.
Under this system, which applied for four years, all candidates in any primary were listed together on all ballots, with all voters able to cast ballots for whomever they wished, regardless of their own party affiliations or the candidate’s. The leading vote-getters in each party made it onto the November runoff ballot.
One result was increased voter turnout. Another was that every once in awhile, moderate, middle-roader candidates triumphed over party establish- ment choices. The most celebrated cases of this came in Orange County, where moderate Republican legislative candidates sometimes won by getting Democrats to cross over and vote for them in primaries.
This infuriated the Republican party establishment. Their Democratic counterparts didn’t like it, either, fearing the same thing could happen to them. So the two parties went to court together and got the U.S. Supreme Court to squash the blanket primary (so-called because of the longer ballot which blanketed all candidates). That ruling also applied to similar systems in other states, like Washington and Maine. The court essentially said that parties have a right to be governed by the preferences of only their own members, if that’s what they want.
California voters accepted that ruling and went back to partisan primaries with separate ballots for each party.
But in Washington, voters via a ballot initiative set up a different sort of open primary. They opted to list all candidates together, but rather than putting the top vote-getters from each party on the November ballot, this system sets up a race between the two overall primary election leaders, regardless of party, unless one gets a majority in the primary.
That may not sound like a big difference, but it certainly mattered to the Supreme Court, which this spring okayed the Washington system by a 7-2 vote.
Immediately, there was strong sentiment for an initiative to set up the same system in California. In a state whose Legislature and budget process are often hamstrung by party bloc voting spurred by realistic fears that any independent voting will lead to hard-line opposition in the next primary, this plan would be a natural.
If it reaches the ballot in a special election before the June 2010 primary, the days of hard-line party politics in this state may be over.
For sure, extremist politicians in both parties will oppose this plan, just as they fought Proposition 198. It will be just like 1996, when the extreme right-wing Republican Bruce Herschensohn and the ultra-liberal Democratic former state Attorney General John Van de Kamp signed ballot arguments against the blanket system. Another anti-openness argument that year was signed by the chairmen of both major parties at the time, Republican John Herrington and Democrat Bill Press.
But this time, again as in 1996, moderate business groups like the California Business Roundtable will back the plan. And so will the voters, if they get the chance.
Thomas D. Elias is a syndicated columnist who writes about California issues. Contact him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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