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A Better Way to Hold a Primary?

Post Election Thoughts – Part 2

Are political parties obsolete? Are there better ways to do democracy? Last June, California voters passed Proposition 14. It is the latest attempt to reform the primary process, and, if it succeeds court challenges, it will radically change how we conduct state elections.

In California, it all started with the creation of the direct primary one hundred years ago. It was one of the inventions of the Progressive movement that also gave us initiative, referendum, and recall. Before the direct primary, candidates were selected by machine party politics. The major parties, controlled by special interests, determined what candidates would be facing each other in November. The Progressives wanted to give more power directly to the voters, including choosing the nominees of each party for the various partisan offices.

The system has been a vast improvement over the “smoke-filled rooms,” though still not perfect. Until the last few decades, California has conducted closed primaries. Voters had to register with one of the state qualified parties in order to vote for that party’s candidates in June. This arrangement locks out the independent voter from having candidates to vote on in the spring. It also prevents crossing over and voting  for candidates of either party in the various contests. The parties fear a completely open primary would allow crossovers to sabotage an election by nominating a weaker candidate who could be the easiest to beat in November. Today, we have a semi-open primary. Independent voters can ask for either a Democratic or Republican ballot when they enter the polls. This is only for state and local candidates, however. Presidential primaries are still closed. A voter who wishes to select a Republican candidate for President must register Republican before the election.

Turnout in primaries has been historically low, especially in non-presidential elections. In June, when voters were deciding on Proposition 14, as well as gubernatorial and senatorial candidates, one third of registered voters actually cast ballots. This means only a small number of Californians decided what candidates would compete in November. So if you were unhappy with your choices of either Meg Whitman or Jerry Brown, or Barbara Boxer or Carly Fiorina, you were not alone. This November’s turnout was only 44%. In November, 2008 it was almost 80%.

There has been some other tinkering with the primary process that has not helped turnout. Starting in 1996, Presidential primaries have been moved up in the calendar. The complaint was that, by the time California got around to having its election in June, the contest was over, and we knew who the nominees would be. The 2008 presidential primary was moved up to February. No one could have predicted that the Democrats would still have a competitive race between Clinton and Obama in June. If so, we could have saved a lot of money by having just one primary instead of two. And the turnout at the regular June primary was just 28%.

A major complaint of our current primary system is that the voters in those elections are not representative of those who show up in the fall. They represent each party’s base; the Republicans being conservative and the Democrats being liberal. While there are more registered Democrats in California than Republicans, the biggest majority are independent voters who are politically moderate. These are the voters who are the most disappointed with the choices they get in November.

Under Proposition 14, independent voters will get a larger voice. All candidates from all parties are listed on the same ballot. The top two candidates then face each other in a November runoff. This means the possibility of having two Democrats or two Republicans in that runoff. It could also mean two candidates who are not in either party making it to the general election. Independent candidates could become more viable.

One drawback is that the smaller parties will be frozen out of the November election. There are a number of small parties that have qualified for the California ballot: American Independent, Green, Libertarian, and Peace and Freedom parties. Each currently selects candidates for the general election. Under Proposition 14, candidates representing these parties will not be on the November ballot unless they can place first or second in the primary. There can be only two candidates in the general election, and no write-ins are allowed. On the other hand, candidates of these smaller parties never had a chance to win anyway. Voting for them is just a way of protesting the lack of choices we have received from the Republicans and Democrats. In the final analysis, do we want to protest our lack of choice or do we want to be able to vote for candidates that truly represent our views and interests? That is the real choice with Proposition 14.

Now add Rank Choice Voting to the mix. Instead of two elections, we just have one. Instead of voting for the “Lesser of Two Evils” (LO2E), we can vote with both our hearts and our heads. Our hearts may be drawn to a candidate with a slim chance of winning, while our heads lead us to the candidate that has the best chance and would do the least damage. Our heart candidate would be our first rank, and our head candidate would be a second. And who knows, maybe that heart candidate could be the next Jean Quan.

November 23, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment