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9.24.04

Proposition 62

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 campaign hype.

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 party!

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 governor's office.

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.