Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, fresh from a successful ballot initiative campaign to create an independent redistricting commission, is considering a laundry list of potential political reforms that include a push to change California’s primary election laws.
Schwarzenegger, at a news conference this week in Sacramento, did not discuss specifics of his future political-reform efforts, but promised “more on that later.” Capitol sources, however, said the notion of an open primary is near the top of his list.
Open primaries allow voters to cast primary ballots for any candidate, regardless of partisan affiliation. A ballot initiative could be before voters by 2010, perhaps even earlier, to change the state’s primary laws.
Schwarzenegger has already signaled his support of an open primary.
“He (the governor) believes we need to have a robust debate about that and other political issues,” said Schwarzenegger spokesman Aaron McLear. “You can anticipate that, as he has through his governorship, he will continue to push for political reform.”
One view of the partisan paralysis gripping the California Legislature is that it could be eased by embracing open primary elections, in which voters can cast ballots for any candidate regardless of party affiliation. The notion is not new – some 18 states already have open primaries and 20 more have variants, and California had open primaries in 1998, before its law was thrown out by the courts. But reformers, the governor and others now see open primaries in California as a possible answer to a Capitol frozen in partisan gridlock.
The political parties themselves remain opposed, however, and during the past decade voters have tended to agree, turning down two attempts to open up the primaries.
But California voters, in a signal that change could be looming, recently approved the creation of a bipartisan, independent commission to draw the boundaries for 120 legislative and four Board of Equalization districts, taking that authority away from the Democrat-controlled Legislature.
Before the November election, Gov. Schwarzenegger said in Los Angeles that redistricting was the most important first step. “And of course, the next thing is open primaries. That’s how we have to walk down that road and create the real change and not stay with the status quo.”
California Forward, a nonprofit political comparison which played a significant role in the passage of Proposition 11, the redistricting measure, is looking at the possibility of changes to the primary election process, with the intention of placing a plan before voters in 2010. The overarching goal: Minimize partisanship and encourage movement away from the parties’ perimeter to the center where, presumably, most voters reside.
California Common Cause, a sponsor of Proposition 11, also is looking at open primaries. Common Cause notes there are a number of possibilities, including same-day election registration, a fully open primary and the so-called “top two” formula, in which the top two vote-getters in the primary face off in the general election, regardless of party affiliation.
In election-day registration, voters request the party ballot of their choice. Like California Forward, Common Cause is examining the options.
“We are particularly interested in election-day registration,” said Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause. “In November 2008, we saw a lot of voters try to vote who were turned away. They were convinced they had registered to vote, but because of the turnout, they weren’t in the system.” Election-day registration, she added, would help alleviate that problem.
“We think election-day registration allows people who are legitimately able to vote to express that on election day. It would allow for an open primary, like Michigan, and it would eliminate the ‘criss-cross,” she added. The “criss-cross,” the bane of the two major parties, allows registrants of one party to vote in another’s primary – a move they believe causes political mischief.
The purpose of a primary election is to select the party’s candidate. In a fully open primary, any voter can vote for any candidate. In a fully closed primary, voters can only vote for a candidate from their own party. In either case, the general election remains unchanged: Voters can vote for whomever they want.
California has what is called a modified closed primary. In this system, the parties determine whether those registered as declined-to-state can vote in the party’s primary election. Generally, that means declined-to-state voters can cast ballots in most primaries except presidential and party leadership positions.
One statewide race, the superintendent of Public Instruction, is nonpartisan. The contenders are listed on the ballot by name, but not party. If candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote in the primary, the race is over. If no candidate wins 50 percent, a runoff election is held in November during the general election.