By Bob Richard
A shorter statement of the argument in this article is available here.
Proposition 14 is a very wrong solution to a very important problem. It's the wrong solution because it wouldn't do what its backers claim, because it would weaken political parties and increase corporate influence in elections, and because it doesn't address the the basic cause of gridlock.
The problem is that elected officials don't accurately represent us. This is indeed critically important. So we not only have to defeat Prop. 14, we also have to put forward real solutions – solutions that bring about multi-party democracy.
Let's start by getting a few facts straight.
The backers of Prop. 14 call it a proposal for "open primaries". In fact, it would institute non-partisan blanket primaries, also called top two. These are different from (and worse than) open primaries. In an open primary, voters choose a political party on primary election day, not beforehand when they register to vote. That's not at all like what Prop. 14 does.
Second, proponents say that Prop. 14 would "open up" the electoral process to independent voters. In fact, independents can already vote in either the Republican or Democratic primaries. (Republican Presidential primaries are the exception, and Prop. 14 doesn't affect Presidential primaries anyway.) What blanket primaries actually do is allow cross-over voting. Republicans can influence the selection of Democratic candidates and vice versa.
Third, proponents say that Prop. 14 would increase voter choice. Yes, in June it would allow everyone to vote for candidates of one party for some offices and candidates of other parties for other offices. But then in November everyone would only have two choices for any one office. The two finalists would sometimes represent the same party.
As if the blanket primary weren't bad enough as a concept, the politicians who put Prop. 14 together -- as part of a back room deal during the closing hours of a legislative session -- added a few new twists that make this blanket primary the worst such proposal we've seen.
First, they eliminated write-ins in November. If both of the candidates who win in June are revealed to be crooks during the summer months, the voters are stuck with them. Hard to believe, but true.
Second, they made it possible for party regulars to masquerade as independent, non-partisan candidates on the ballot. Candidates would not be required to put their party affiliations next to their names. For those who choose not to wear their party labels, that crucial information would be relegated to a government website, far away from the polling place.
Third, they eliminated the mechanism by which two of California's four small parties currently stay on the ballot. After 2010, it would no longer be possible to remain ballot-qualified by getting two percent of the vote for a statewide office – which Peace and Freedom has done in every gubernatorial election except 1998 (under a different, unconstitutional kind of blanket primary). Instead, we would need to nearly double our registration by 2014.
Small parties could try to increase their registration before the ax falls, but Prop. 14 would also reduce the incentive anyone has to register as a member of any party, big or small. As result, the Libertarian Party would be threatened immediately and the Green Party (which has been shrinking) would be threatened eventually as well.
Remember, all of this is alleged to provide voters with more choices. In fact, it gives us fewer choices rather than more. And it won't even accomplish the result its proponents claim it will.
Prop. 14 is motivated by frustration with the direction in which the two major parties are going. Its proponents complain about increasing polarization, and fewer moderate politicians who can broker compromises and get things done by bridging the partisan divide. (This is their rhetoric, not ours). They're partly right. Lack of representation of centrist voters is not the whole problem with the two-party system. That system also excludes those to the left of the Democrats and to the right (especially the libertarian right) of the Republicans. But under-representation of moderates is an important part of the problem.
Proponents say that non-partisan blanket primaries would help reduce polarization and give moderates more representation. Some of them may honestly believe that. In fact, there is good political science research on this question. The evidence to support their belief – from Louisiana, Washington and Alaska -- is somewhere between weak and non-existent. Compared to completely closed primaries, both open primaries and blanket primaries do elect a few more moderates. But so do semi-closed primaries.
If we had fully closed primaries now, Prop. 14 might help elect a handful of additional centrists, but we don't. California's major parties already allow independents to vote in their primaries. With the exception of the 2004 and 2008 Republican Presidential primaries, we have not had a fully closed major party primary in California since 1996. Prop. 14 would not improve on this arrangement as far as moderates are concerned.
The evidence from other states also confirms that blanket primaries do nothing to reduce incumbent protection. There is reason to believe that they actually help incumbents. A lot of cross-over voting is in support of current office-holders who have little serious opposition. This makes mounting a campaign to unseat an incumbent even harder than it is now.
If non-partisan blanket primaries can't elect more centrists, reduce polarization and end gridlock, why are the corporate backers of Prop. 14 spending so much money to pass it? Some of the journalists, think tank experts, and interest group leaders who speak for them are probably sincere in their belief that it would do what they claim, and just wrong on the facts. But we think those funding the campaign have a different agenda.
While polarization is a fact about California politics, it's also a code word for a less visible but equally important trend. Both the Republican and Democratic parties have become increasingly dominated by activists who are not necessarily attuned to the needs of business. The Republican Party, especially, is in the hands of conservatives who are passionate about social issues that corporate leaders see differently, and who want to shrink government rather than keep it friendly to business interests. The Democratic Party is more attentive than usual to its progressive wing.
With their grip on both major party organizations weakened, many in the business community are worried – so worried that a few of them recently tried to roll the dice on a state constitutional convention, and many are backing specific constitutional changes aimed at providing on-time state budgets and reducing gridlock. The same corporate interests are also bankrolling Prop. 14.
The most likely real results of top two or blanket primaries are (1) elections that are easier to buy with money that has not been funneled through the major parties, and (2) elections that are more about personalities and less about policies and programs. In short, the backers of Prop. 14 seek to weaken the two major parties and give themselves a larger role outside of the party organizations.
One mechanism by which money will become more important is that viable candidates will have to campaign before the whole electorate twice – in June and then again in November. This won't double the cost of their campaigns, but it will increase that cost substantially. Guess where they're going to get the additional money.
Do we really need elections to be more about personalities and fund raising and less about positions on the issues? That might benefit those with a lot of money to spend on manipulating public opinion. It might benefit incumbents. But it won't benefit the rest of us.
Prop. 14 would increase the role of corporate money. It is designed to give big business a better chance of electing candidates friendly to its needs with less interference from the Democratic and Republican party organizations. While it will not achieve the publicly stated goal of electing more moderate candidates, it smight achieve this alternate goal. And it would threaten all of California's small political parties in the process.
Polarization and girdlock are reflections of a fundamental problem that requires fundamental solutions. The most important solution is proportional representation, to ensure that everyone is represented accurately in Congress and the state legislature. "Everyone" includes moderate centrists, but also includes social conservatives, libertarians, corporate liberals, progressives, radicals, and socialists. For more on the real solution, see this companion article.
Help us and others from across the political spectrum defeat this attack on democracy.
Vote NO on Proposition 14!
Last revised May 18, 2010