California voters gave themselves an early Christmas present – one that won’t even cost much -– when they decided last month to reassign the task of redrawing state legislative districts every ten years, taking it away from politicians who have had an obvious conflict of interest.
Now there’s the distinct possibility that by mid-2010 they will get a crack at another gift, a chance to resume holding open primaries that give moderates in both parties a significant chance at winning high offices.
The possibility that an initiative creating this huge improvement could be on the ballot in June 2010 or sooner got a major boost this fall, when Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger announced that once voters passed the redistricting changes of Proposition 11, “the next thing is open primaries. That’s how we have to walk down that road and create the real change and not stay with the status quo.”
Schwarzenegger has been wrong about a lot of things, but on this he is dead right. Today’s system of closed primaries, where registered Democrats can vote only for Democrats and Republicans for Republicans in primary elections produces ideologues and conformists who toe their party’s line unquestioningly once in office. That leads to gridlock and resistance to the compromises so necessary for smooth, efficient and truly representative government.
For when Democrats can vote only for Democrats, the history of the last 30 years shows the party’s nominees will almost always be ultra-liberals. And when Republicans vote only for Republicans, that party’s extreme right wing dominates.
This happens in closed primaries.
It was the reason why leaders of both major parties hated the so-called “blanket primary” elections created by the 1996 Proposition 198. That system – which lasted only through two election cycles – saw all candidates listed on every ballot together, with the highest vote-getters in each party matched up in the November runoff election.
“Should Democrats be allowed to nominate Republicans? No! Should Republicans be allowed to nominate Democrats? No!” went the ballot argument against Proposition 198. By no coincidence, that argument was signed by John Herrington and Bill Press, then the state chairmen of the California Republican and Democratic parties.
Their reasoning, of course, is wrong in a state where many districts contain lopsided majorities of one party or the other. For when only party members get to vote in party primaries, the actual majority in a district can be left without representation. In many districts, that majority is composed of moderate Democrats, independents and Republicans, but they get an ultra-liberal Democrat. In other districts, the actual majority is a combination of moderate Republicans, Democrats and independents, but they get a hardline conservative Republican. That’s what the party bosses, usually representing their parties’ extreme wings.
This was, when Proposition 198 passed, the two parties sued together, and got the blanket system thrown out. Thus ended the chance for Democrats to appeal for moderate Republican support, and Republicans to get moderate Democratic votes in primaries – a system that actually did produce some centrist lawmakers.
But even while the U.S. Supreme Court was throwing out the blanket primary, saying party members have a right to exclusivity in choosing their candidates, the justices left alone the longstanding Louisiana primary, which lists all candidates together, with the top two vote getters making the runoff, regardless of party. That’s a completely open system, one that some activists in both major parties believe could render them irrelevant.
And when Washington State adopted that system early in this decade, the court once again said it’s completely constitutional.
So that’s the system any new open primary effort will have to adopt. And why not?
It offers all the virtues of the old blanket primary, while also opening the possibility of two Democrats or two Republicans facing off in November, should they be the two primary election leaders. That would certainly allow for true majority representation.
It would most likely also produce a far larger moderate contingent in the Legislature, with compromises coming far easier on budgets and other contentious issues.
The bottom line: If Californians really want a state government that works, they’ll support the open primary whenever it makes the ballot, just as they easily passed the Proposition 198 blanket primary more than 12 years ago.