Party leaders, rank-and-file at odds over open primary

California has toyed with open primaries in the past but either the courts or the electorate – or both – ultimately have given a thumbs down. In the end, the political parties and their biggest allies hate them, the public tends to like them and an array of powerful special interests are divided.

Now it’s the voters’ turn – again – with Proposition 14, which allows people to vote for whoever they want in a primary election, regardless of party affiliation. The top two vote-getters would face each other in the general election. Backers believe the top-two system would lead to more moderate legislators and dampen hyper-partisanship. 

“In my opinion , this is the Prop. 13 of elective politics. It is probably the most important ballot measure impacting legislative races that we’ve done in 40 years. It will create candidates more representative of the district as a whole and not just a small faction,” said Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of the Target Book, which tracks legislative and congressional races. “I keep seeing these races in which legislators are getting elected with less than 10 percent of the vote. The two-party system has completely broken down,” he added.

But critics see an erosion of party structure and a potential for higher levels of campaign spending, and even greater difficulties for minor parties.

Proposition 14 is on the ballot because of a hard-ball political deal in the Capitol last year that put together enough votes to break the logjam on a long-overdue state budget. Democrats, who control the Capitol but lack two-thirds majorities needed for budget approval, angrily backed the deal.  “A gun was held to their head,” Bob Mulholland, the state Democratic Party’s political director, said at the time.

Then-Sen. Abel Maldonado, R-Santa Maria, pushed through the plan in return for his vote for the budget. Maldonado now is lieutenant governor, appointed by Gov. Schwarzenegger.

The backers of Proposition 14 are led by Schwarzenegger’s political “Dream Team”– it donated $2 million to the campaign – the Chamber of Commerce’s political arm and assorted business leaders, such as Netflix’s Reed Hastings, who donated more than $250,000. Disclosure records on file with the state show the campaign has raised about $4.7 million, more than half of it from the donations of the governor’s group and the Chamber of Commerce.

Opponents’ money, harder to track, shows $200,000 in two separate committees, including $50,000 from Republican Sen. Jeff Denham of Modesto, and the remainder from teachers and public labor groups. But that amount is only a partial number and last-minute money is likely to pour in through the state parties, labor groups and others. One opposition group, the California Alliance of Retired Americans, is a coalition of major labor groups – most of them key allies of the Democrats. But Republican leaders, including state GOP official and blogger Jon Fleischman, also oppose Proposition 14.

Nearly two-dozen newspapers, from the Los Angeles Times to the California Aggie, have endorsed the measure.

Party leaders see Proposition 14 as an assault on the parties’ structures and strength. That’s their fundamental issue – the debates over voter choice, spending, limits on minor parties, inter-party mischief and the like are secondary. The No. 1 issue is party clout. And since Democrats are the state’s dominant political force, party leaders see the open primary as a direct assault on them.

“It minimizes voter choice,” said Steven Maviglio, a veteran political strategist who has served California’s top Democratic leadership. In the general election, “it reduces your choice to two candidates instead of giving you a full range to choose from. It eliminates the write-ins, so if there is a scandal with a candidate, you’re stuck with him. If you follow the money and look at who’s behind this, it’s pretty clear that corporations that spend the most money on campaigns want this.”

Proposition 14’s backers would “bypass the parties, because then there is no need to have a local organization built around political philosophy. They just want to pass Go and go directly to the ballot.”

But that’s precisely why the supporters of the open primary favor the change – they see the parties’ rigidity and drive for survival as a big piece of California’s political dysfunction.
But partisan hyperbole aside, the actual impact of a top-two primary is hard to pin down. Based on voter registration and historical data, a study by the Center for Governmental Studies identified 19 legislative races and four congressional races in which the top-two runoff contenders would have been members of the same party if Proposition 14 had been in place.

The study noted that 11 of the 19 races would have involved state Senate seats, which “suggests that the greatest impact of Proposition 14 will be on the Senate races, in which races for open seats frequently involve established politicians who have been termed out of other offices.”

The districts most affected by Proposition 14 would be those that have the most lopsided registration margins, those with 25 percent or greater for either party. About a third of California’s legislative districts are these “supermajority districts,” and the number is increasing, according to the study.

The supporters of Proposition 14 believe it would dramatically moderate partisanship. The CGS study was less emphatic. The races in which the potential runoffs pit two members of the same party against each other for example, the 19 legislative races would provide the most likely scenario for a moderating effect. “CGS found a potential moderating effect in a top-two election system in situations involving very close contests between two members of the same party.”

Last fall, a Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) survey poll showed that more than two thirds of voters – 68 percent – generally supported the open primary.

But voter sentiment can change rapidly in the face of an aggressive opposition campaign. The last open primary proposal on the ballot, Proposition 62 in 2004, was favored by voters in polls but lost decisively on Election Day by 54 to 46 percent.

On Wednesday, PPIC released its latest numbers on Proposition 14, showing 60 percent of likely voters in favor, 27 percent opposed and 13 percent undecided. Support has climbed four points since March, PPIC noted.

 According to PPIC, likely voters were asked whether it was important that voters be able to choose any candidate, regardless of party. Four out of five, 81 percent, said it was  very important or somewhat important. About two-thirds of those surveyed said changes should be made to the primary system, and about a fourth said it should stay the way it is.
In 1996, California voters approved an open, or blanket, primary for state and federal elections, in which voters of any party could vote for a candidate of any party, and the top vote-getter within each party – not just the top two candidates, as in Proposition 14 – advanced to the General Election. The U.S. Supreme Court threw out the blanket primary in 2000.

The parties’ leaders themselves aren’t campaigning against the open primary – why rile the rank and file? – but their allies are playing aggressive roles. In fact, to see the ballot arguments, the parties’ leaders aren’t involved at all.

Official ballot arguments in favor of the open primary are signed by the state president of AARP, Jim Earp of the California Alliance for Jobs and Allan Zaremberg, president of the C
alifornia Chamber of Commerce and a close political ally of the governor. The opponents are led by a UC Davis political science professor, and the heads of groups identified as Californians for Electoral Reform and the California Alliance of Retired Americans. Neither group has funding, according to the state campaign disclosure records.

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