Here in California, where most of us agree that our state legislature is broken and it seems that our state government is on the brink of bankruptcy every few months or so, there are a number of hotly contested races underway for our June 8th primary election. But amidst votes that will be cast for the nominees in each major party for Governor, Lt. Governor and Attorney General, the outcome of a vote on one specific initiative on the ballot has the potential of having a far more long-lasting impact on our state than any of the individual races for elective office.
Proposition 14 is an interesting proposal to to amend Sections 5 and 6 of Article II of the California State Constitution relating to elections. It is officially known as the "Top Two Primaries Act" -- essentially, it would provide for a “voter-nominated primary election” for each State and Congressional office in California. Voter-nominated primaries, which are used now in Louisiana and Washington and being considered in several states nationwide, eliminate the conventional system where each political party has their own internal campaigns during the primary season and then the winners of those primaries in each party go on to compete against each other in the general election.
Instead, with voter-nominated primaries, a voter may vote at the primary election for any candidate for a Congressional or State elective office without regard to the political party of either the candidate or the voter (although candidates could choose whether or not to have their political party affiliation displayed on the ballot). The two candidates receiving the two highest vote totals for each office at a primary election, regardless of their party affiliation, would then compete for the office at the general election. In other words, the voters nominate the candidates for the general election -- not the political parties.
If this all rings a bell to you, it should. California voters passed an "open primaries" initiative back in 1996, which allowed voters to cross party lines and vote for anyone they wished in primary elections. But after four years of intense legal battles waged by the Democratic and Republican Party machines in California, the initiative was thrown out by the Supreme Court in 2000. Then a similar proposal was put on the ballot in California back in 2004, ultimately losing by a slim margin after the major parties blanketed the airwaves with last-minute television ads.
In a poll released last week by the Public Policy Institute of California, however, Proposition 14 is supported by 60% of likely voters and opposed by just 27%, with 13% still undecided. The driving force in support for the measure is the under-appreciated and under-represented group of Californians who are independents and self-described "moderate" voters. About two-thirds of respondents from those groups said they would back Proposition 14.
What's the big deal with voter-nominated primaries and why should anyone care?
If you live in California, you've seen the disastrous gridlock in our state legislature and know first-hand the inevitable cycles of Democrats going into one corner and Republicans going into the other corner -- few legislators stand in the center of the room, suck it up, and get the hard work done. The result has been IOUs and pink slips and furloughs and all sorts of absurd accounting tricks that last just long enough for some silly brokered deal to kick in and extend the life of the state government for another few months. This is a pretty immature way to govern a state and is just not sustainable.
At the heart of this nonsense is the politics of partisan bickering that is now a hallmark of American political discourse. Our party is made up of the good guys and their party is made up of the bad guys, so I'm digging in my heels and sleeping under my desk right here on the floor of the State Capitol to prove how right I am!
Voter-nominated primaries may well be our last best hope for reducing the partisanship that leads to this gridlock in our state government. By empowering voters with the ability to scan the ballot in the primary election and vote for the candidate they most prefer, without regard to political party affiliation, and then let the top two vote-getters go head-to-head in the general election, Proposition 14 would shift the balance of power from the major party machines to the California voters -- many of whom have no allegiance to any political party and have no interest in the "my team is better than your team" nonsense that passes for political dialogue in California. As the Palo Alto Daily News put it, "Proposition 14 gives California voters the rare opportunity to free their government from the kind of ideological gridlock that leads to lengthy budget stalemates, one-sided elections and control of this state's politics by special interests at the extremes of both major parties."
Opponents argue that voter-nominated primaries will weaken "third parties" in California because they are unlikely to be able to put forward candidates who will make it to the fall ballot. But this is small thinking -- representative democracy is about open competitions of ideas and, if a candidate has ideas that are sufficiently appealing, they will fare better under voter-nominated primaries than under the current system in which "third party" candidates have essentially no credible chance of winning in the fall election anyway. Other opponents argue that there is no proof that Proposition 14 will deliver liberation from partisan gridlock. But this argument is hardly persuasive -- for one thing, it certainly can't make things worse than the broken state government we have now; and for another thing, this is California, baby, we make the blueprints for others to follow!
In spite of the notable lead that Proposition 14 appears to have as we head toward the election, there is still time on the clock in the campaign and well-heeled interest groups are starting to spend heavily to try to get the No vote to 50.1% by June 8th. Rest assured that, given how high the stakes are to their party machines, they will fight Proposition 14 in a variety of creative and aggressive ways.
So once again the eyes of the nation's political analysts are fixed on California. The battle over Proposition 14 was recently the subject of a New York Times feature article and it is becoming increasingly clear that the outcome of the vote here on June 8th could be a harbinger of things to come in other states, where voters are increasingly frustrated with the politics of polarization that seems to be a big hit with the bases of each major party but a big flop when it comes to minding the people's business.