Over the opposition of political pros, California voters on Tuesday approved Proposition 14, which allows voters to choose any candidate in a primary election regardless of party affiliation and sets the stage for the top two vote-getters to face each other in the general election.
The results gave Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger a rare political victory in his stormy, seven years as governor. He had publicly demanded its passage, calling it a critical reform measure that was long overdue, and staked political capital on its outcome. His well-heeled backers — including the members of his corporate “Dream Team” – financed the lion’s share of the proponents’ nearly $5 million campaign.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat and former leader of the state Democratic Party, urged Californians to reject Proposition 14. But voters paid her little heed, approving the measure by about 60 percent to 40 percent in early returns, a decisive margin that held throughout the evening.
Proposition 14, similar to a proposal that voters rejected in 2004, also was backed by the reform group California Forward and an unusual coalition of business groups, political activists and moderate and Democrats and Republicans.
Advocates said opening up the primary would force contenders to seek votes from all parties, left or right, resulting in the election of candidates with broader appeal. That, in turn, could lead to a less hyper-partisan Legislature.
But Proposition 14 was denounced by party officials, who said it would erode the authority of political parties squeeze out the minor parties, who could never hope to gain enough votes to enter the final top-two tier. The California Teachers Association and public-employee labor groups also opposed the measure.
Proposition 14 drew national, and even international, attention.
“The theory is that Proposition 14 will help, or at least stop penalizing, moderate politicians, since all candidates would have to appeal to voters across the spectrum from the start of their campaigns,” the British magazine The Economist wrote. “In districts that are reliably Democratic, for example, the two candidates who will face each other in the general election may both be Democrats, but Republican voters could help a conservative or moderate Democrat get to the run-off and then elect him over his more liberal alternative.”
“In my opinion,” said California political analyst Allan Huffenblum, “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 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.
Ironically, Proposition 14 wound up on the ballot because of a political deal that emerged as a compromise between warring Capitol factions struggling to put together an agreement on the over due state budget. Abel Maldonado, R-Santa Maria, then a state senator and now lieutenant governor, pushed through the top-two primary plan in return for his vote for the budget. Maldonado now is lieutenant governor, appointed by Gov. Schwarzenegger.
Democrats angrily backed the deal. “A gun was held to their head,” Bob Mulholland, the state Democratic Party’s political director, said at the time.
The impact of the top-two primary is debatable.
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.
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.
Two weeks before the election, PPIC released its latest numbers on Proposition 14, showing 60 percent of likely voters in favor, 27 percent opposed and 13 percent undecided. Support 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.