Party poopers: California tries a radical election experiment

Written by Susan Mannella on .

National attention on California's June 8 primary focused on two women with gilt-edged corporate credentials nominated to be the Republican candidates in races for governor and U.S. Senate. But voters also approved a proposition that its supporters hope will reverberate nationally.

The question is whether Proposition 14, which passed with 54 percent of the vote, will help or hinder the political process -- and not just for Californians. Given the size of the state and its reputation as an incubator of trends, this experiment may very well have a wider influence.

Modeled on a Washington state law in effect since 2008, the California measure replaces party primaries with a type of open primary. Starting in 2012, voters will cast a ballot for any candidate, regardless of party affiliation in most races (but not the presidential primary, which will remain partisan). The top two will go on to compete in the general election -- never mind that both might be from the same party.

As promoted by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the idea of Proposition 14 is to help elect more centrist politicians who are not so beholden to their parties and so better placed to break through the partisan gridlock.

"It will make our legislators and the politicians more accountable to the people," Gov. Schwarzenegger said in applauding the results. "It will take power away from the parties, there's no two ways about that, and that's exactly what we wanted. We wanted to have the politicians be public servants and not party servants. We wanted to make sure that the politicians don't get stuck in their ideological corners, but they go and they can compromise."

That sounds fairly tempting -- we like moderates, too -- but parties exist for a reason: Their members freely combine around a series of sincere and often heartfelt beliefs. Certainly, partisanship causes problems, but changing the system so that those who feel the strongest will be heard the least is a dubious reform. Indeed, why have primaries at all if they are robbed of their essential function?

In aiming a dagger at the heart of the party system, California invites unintended consequences. Campaign costs, already steep and potentially corrupting, could rise as candidates have to compete for all voters across the board, not just the party faithful. Smaller parties -- Libertarians, the Green Party and others -- are likely to be further squeezed out and rarely seen on the November ballot. And, voters facing the prospect of picking one of two Democrats in November, or one of two Republicans, may not think they are getting much of a real choice.

California's experience will be revealing, if the inevitable lawsuits do not stop it cold. For now, the "top two" system looks over the top.

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