Blanket primaries a step toward reform

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Pasadena Star News
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R. Michael Alvarez

Recently, I have been talking with people about the upcoming primary elections. I've been finding that some are just not interested in participating in California's June primary.

A common thread in these conversations is a feeling that choices are limited. Regardless of the individual's partisanship and given that the legislative districts in our area are so heavily gerrymandered to favor one of the two major parties, some think they don't have meaningful choices in the upcoming primary.

Unfortunately, my guess is that this is a common perception and might be why many voters don't participate in primaries.

This lack of clear choices in many primary elections is partly due to our current set of gerrymandered districts. But it is mainly due to a different problem: the lack of open primaries in California.

California experimented with truly open primaries in 1998. That experiment occurred after voters approved Proposition 198, which ushered in the so-called "blanket primary." In this version of an open primary, no matter the voter's party registration, he or she could cast a ballot for any candidate running in the primary, regardless of the candidate's party label. Candidates receiving the most votes within each party then advanced to the general election.

This type of open primary was unusual, but was effective at providing voters with real choices and producing more interesting primary elections.

The blanket primary was an important step toward real election reform. Had we continued with truly open primaries like that, we'd probably now see less-extreme and less-divisive politics in California.

Consider this example. We have a heavily gerrymandered legislative district - one that favors Democrats. In a blanket primary, candidates running for office know they have to appeal to moderate and crossover voters from other parties as well as their own party's voters. This means that candidates will moderate their positions. In the long run, we should see more moderate candidates running and winning under the blanket primary.

Now consider the situation facing voters who are not registered Democrats. Under the blanket primary, those voters could cast a ballot for their party's candidate or for a Democrat. "Decline-to-state" voters could also cast a meaningful ballot in the primary. This means that voters in a truly open primary can have a much broader spectrum of choices, compared to today's situation, in which they can choose from only a narrower set of candidates from one party.

Not surprisingly, voters liked the blanket primary. Voter participation in the 1998 blanket primary was at least 7 percentage points higher than in the 1994 and 2002 statewide primaries, both of which used more restrictive primary rules. Also, my exit polling in the 1998 blanket primary showed that voters loved the blanket primary. Overwhelmingly, voters said it provided them with more representative candidates, gave them more choices and it produced more substantive campaigns and more interesting elections.

Unfortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the California blanket primary was unconstitutional, as political parties were being forced to allow voters "outside" their party to choose their nominees, thus violating their right to free association.

But we can return to a truly open primary in ways that will withstand legal challenge. One possibility is to again let voters cast ballots for all candidates running for office, regardless of their party, in most contests. But the two top-vote getters from the primary - no matter their party label - would face off in the fall general election. Such a system, if it did not apply to presidential races or party central committee offices, should pass constitutional muster.

Political junkies will recognize this proposed system. It was debated in 2004 as Proposition 62. And yes, Prop. 62 was defeated in that election - but only after being the subject of a cynical effort by the political elite to confuse the discussion with a competing ballot measure and after a pounding effort by political parties to defeat the measure.

But we now have an opportunity to revisit primary election reform. It turns out that two of the three main candidates running for governor (Democratic candidate Steve Westly and Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger) supported this type of open primary reform.

So we need to ask our gubernatorial candidates what they will to do fix our ailing electoral system and to make sure they continue to support opening up our primaries, even if it is contrary to the interests of the entrenched party elite.

Better yet, Westly and Schwarzenegger should push the Legislature to pass serious election reform this year, including opening up the primaries. Voters need real choices in primary elections, and we must reform the primary process to reduce the extreme polarization of our state's politics.