Could California Scrap Party Primaries Today?

On the ballot in today’s California primary is a measure that would affect the state’s elections for many years to come: a referendum on scrapping the traditional primary system itself, and changing over to “top two” blanket primaries and runoffs.

The referendum, Proposition 14, would replace the conventional separate Democratic and Republican primaries with a system in which all candidates run on the same ballot. The top two finishers in the primary, regardless of party, would then advance to a runoff general election. The same system has been used in Louisiana, and was adopted in the last few years in Washington state. A SurveyUSA poll from the last few days suggests that Prop. 14 is on its way to passage: Yes 50%, No 28%.

As such, many districts would see races of one Democrat versus one Republican — but many other places, such as heavily Democratic San Francisco or heavily Republican Bakersfield, would see two candidates of the same party. It is widely believed that such a system would benefit moderates in such races, as Dem voters would gravitate towards a less conservative Republican and GOP voters would pick the less liberal Democrat. As Nate Silver dubbed the idea a year ago: “Land of a thousand Liebermans.”Interestingly, Prop. 14 was placed on the ballot last year as the result of a deal made in the legislature. Moderate Republican state Sen. Abel Maldonado gave his vote to pass the state budget, and in exchange he got the referendum, which he favors, to be put before the voters. (Since then, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has appointed Maldonado to be the state’s lieutenant governor, for which Maldonado is running for a full term in today’s GOP primary).

California may be polarized between conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats, but the two parties do agree on something — both of them are officially opposed to Prop. 14. California GOP communications director Mark Standriff told TPMDC that the party believes the system actually closes off the ballot for Republican voter in Dem areas and for Democratic voters in GOP areas, and would eliminate independent and and third-party├é┬ácandidates all around.

Standriff also differed with the case put forward by proponents who say that it would promote the election of moderates and an end to partisan gridlock. “There’s no evidence out there that shows a top-two open primary shows any of the bipartisanship or breaks any gridlock, like in Louisiana or Washington state where it’s been implemented. These are not models of smooth and well-functioning government,” said Standriff. “It does nothing the proponents say it would do. It was put together by a secret back-room deal to pass a budget last year.”

“Baseball doesn’t work if you don’t have teams, and democracy doesn’t work if you don’t have political parties. Otherwise you have chaos.” said Standriff. “And the only bipartisanship Prop. 14 has achieved is getting all six ballot-qualified parties to say we hate it.”

When asked how the GOP would respond to the potential passage of Prop. 14, Standriff said the decision has already been made to switch over to a convention-endorsement system, in which the state GOP would avoid a waste of party resources and divisive campaigns by having party conventions endorse a candidate, making it clear that this person is the only candidate the party would support. “Any claim out there that this is going to reduce our power, these are people who are intentionally ignoring the facts or are just naive,” said Standriff.

Tenoch Flores, communications director for the California Dems, also strongly opposed the measure. “Proposition 14 will allow Republicans to choose Democratic nominees in a primary election. Democrats living in Republican controlled areas would be left with a stark choice in the general election: vote for a Republican, or don’t vote at all. That’s unacceptable,” Flores told TPMDC in an e-mail. “What’s more Prop 14 will actually increase the costs of political campaigns in California, already the most expensive in the nation, which will give more power to the very same special interests and big contributors who are pushing for this misguided measure to pass.”

We asked Flores whether the Dems would react against Prop. 14 in a similar manner as the GOP, by setting up a convention-endorsement system to weed out primary fields. “We’re gonna wait and see for the results, and see what happens,” Flores responded.