Reform or Deform?
By Steven Hill and Roy Ulrich
California voters will be asked to vote again this
November on our primary election system.
The popular "open" or "blanket" primary passed by
voters in 1996 was lost to an unfavorable U.S. Supreme Court ruling. So,
well-intentioned state leaders such as Leon Panetta, Richard Riordan, and
state controller Steve Westly are pushing a voter initiative suggested by,
oddly enough, the most conservative justice, Antonin Scalia. The result,
unfortunately, is political deform masked as reform.
Their Proposition 62, sugar-coated with the name
"Voter Choice Open Primary Initiative," would adopt a version of a primary
system used in only one other state — Louisiana. Proponents say that this
is a more legal version of the previous open primary, but that's just
Under California's earlier primary, the nominees from
each political party competed against each other in the November election
— Democrats, Republicans and third-party candidates. Voters had some
choice in the November election.
In contrast, under Proposition 62, only the top two
vote-getters in the primary will be eligible to appear on the November
ballot. And here's the catch: the top two could be from the same political
In Louisiana, often the two finalists are in fact
from the same party — either two Democrats in a liberal district, or two
Republicans in a conservative district. And third-party candidates never
appear on Louisiana's final ballot.
That doesn't sound very "open." Rather than give
"voter choice," Prop 62 actually will reduce voter choice in the decisive
November election. If Proposition 62 had been in effect since 2000, more
than 350 candidates would have been barred from appearing on the November
ballot. Those candidates garnered more than 8.2 million votes. These are
votes that would be eliminated by Prop 62.
Ironically, the major reasons cited by proponents for
pushing this measure are twofold:
- * They say it will increase voter turnout
- * They say it will elect more moderates
Yet the "top-two" primary fails on both counts.
Louisiana often ranks near the bottom in voter turnout. In 2002, just over
a third of eligible voters showed up at the polls to cast votes in that
state's congressional elections. That's not surprising, given that voters
have so few choices on the final ballot.
That alone is reason enough to reject the top-two
primary. But Louisiana's experience also negates the assertion that Prop
62 will elect more moderates, especially in competitive statewide races.
Ex-Klansman David Duke made it into Louisiana's 1991
governor's runoff with only 32 percent of the vote. His core of rabid
supporters held together while moderate candidates split the rest of the
vote, allowing Duke to make the final election with a low percentage. His
opponent with 37 percent, Democrat Edwin Edwards, had been twice indicted
and eventually was convicted for bribery and fraud. One infamous bumper
sticker read, "Vote the Crook, not the Klan."
Then in Louisiana's 1995 gubernatorial primary,
candidates from the political middle again split the moderate vote and
were eliminated. The top two candidates were a right-wing state senator
supported by David Duke and a liberal black member of Congress, with 26
percent and 19 percent of the vote each. The right-winger won the
As Louisiana columnist Bill Decker has written, "The
fact is that Louisiana's primary system isn't a good test of the state's
mood and intentions. The multi-candidate primary is about who can attract
20 percent to 30 percent of the vote on one day."
While California may not have to worry about
ex-Klansmen candidates, we have our own version of polarizing candidates
and demagoguery around issues of immigration and race. The "top-two"
system has a track record of exaggerating these divisions.
Oddly, the top-two primary produces an electoral
schizophrenia. The few competitive races tend to elect winners from the
extremes of the parties. But lopsided races might elect slightly more
moderate winners, since Republicans in a Democratic district can vote for
the more moderate of the final two Democratic candidates, and vice versa.
It gives opposition voters a kind of check over the major party winner.
However, in Democratic districts this could result in
a decline in racial minorities being elected, and the California
legislature being less diverse. And third parties and independent
candidates are locked out.
On balance, the gain seems minimal, while the loss is
great. The desire to improve California's democracy is commendable, but
this is the wrong way to do it. There's nothing "open" about any version
of Louisiana's "top-two" primary.
Steven Hill is senior analyst for Center for
Voting and Democracy in San Francisco and author of "Fixing Elections: The
Failure of America's Winner Take All Politics" (www.FixingElections.com)
Roy Ulrich is a public interest lawyer in Los Angeles and board member of
California Common Cause.