Next Tuesday, Californians will vote on Proposition 14, a ballot initiative designed to restructure the electoral process in the country’s largest state.
The essence of Prop 14 is to eliminate party primaries by 1) opening up the primaries to registrants of all parties (including independents and third-party registrants), and by 2) including only the two candidates with the top primary totals in the general election, irrespective of party. According to the CA Legislative Council:
This measure, which would be known as the “Top Two Primaries Act,” would provide for a “voter-nominated primary election” for each state elective office and congressional office in California, in which a voter may vote at the primary election for any candidate for a congressional or state elective office without regard to the political party preference disclosed by the candidate or the voter. The measure would further provide that a candidate for a congressional or state elective office generally may choose whether to have his or her political party preference indicated upon the ballot for that office in the manner to be provided by statute. The measure would prohibit a political party or party central committee from nominating a candidate for a congressional or state elective office at the primary, but the measure would permit a political party or party central committee to endorse, support, or oppose a candidate for congressional or state elective office. The 2 candidates receiving the 2 highest vote totals for each office at a primary election, regardless of party preference, would then compete for the office at the ensuing general election.
There are several good arguments for this change. One argument against the current closed-primary system encourages primary candidates to move toward the fringes in order to get the support of party loyalists, who are more likely to vote in primaries. Open primaries would moderate the candidates earlier and weed out extremists.
I am a registered member of a third party in PA. I do not plan to vote in the next election. If I were a CA resident and a voter, I would be concerned about Prop 14 for several reasons.
First, I think that parties play a key role in screening and moderating candidates. I also don’t like the idea of Republicans choosing Democratic candidates, or vice-versa–if primaries are open, party registration is irrelevant. A party should decide its candidate amongst its members, and then let that candidate stand for election by the public. Different parties choose candidates in different ways (conventions, primaries, elites/delegates), and that is the prerogative of each party.
Also, I don’t think that Prop 14 will accomplish a stated goal of its proponents: to broaden the field for candidates without party support. First of all, it’s still very difficult to run a primary or a general election without a party structure; only candidates that fund their own campaigns (Corzine, Perot, Bloomberg) have a chance. Second, the fact that a party will not be guaranteed a spot on the November ballot will lead to parties suppressing a wide field of primary candidates. Here’s a hypothetical example:
- For the CA gubernatorial primary, Democrats A and B run, as well as Republicans C, D and E.
- The CA Republican establishment, knowing that Democrats outnumber Republicans in CA, fear that none of Candidates C, D or E will get into the primary Top Two, and the general election will be between two Democrats.
- The Republicans pressure D and E to drop out and support C, in exchange for higher-level positions in C’s administration.
In this situation, the new Prop-14 system would have the opposite effect of its intention. At least in a party-based, closed-primary system the primary losers usually try to unify the parties behind the winners for the general election.
The Prop-14 system increases the potential costs to the parties of tolerating diversity or dissent from within, and thus it increases the chance that the parties will take more aggressive (perhaps corrupt) steps to stamp out dissent–which is not healthy for a party or for the public.