• Two good-government propositions are on the primary ballot.
• Proposition 14 would create an open primary.
• Proposition 15 would create public financing for secretary of state candidates.
Californians are fed up with the economic fade of their not-so-Golden State as well as its squabbling politicians. The June 8 primary election offers voters a chance to shake things up with two ballot propositions that threaten the power of the political establishment and wealthy special interests.
Proposition 14 would overhaul state and congressional primary elections, sweeping out party-specific contests in favor of a single, all-comers ballot. Proposition 15 takes on the enduring issue of money in politics by setting up a pilot program for public financing of campaigns for secretary of state, the office that oversees elections.
AARP is taking the lead among the propositions’ proponents, Californians for an Open Primary and the California Fair Elections campaign, who believe both propositions build on a 2008 vote to end partisan drawing of political district boundaries.
Proposition 14 envisions all candidates, whether independent or backed by a party, listed on one ballot. All voters, including independents, could jump party lines to vote. The top two primary vote-getters would advance to the general election. Independents, who are 20 percent of registered voters, are currently restricted in primaries by party rules.
“We believe it will result in more voter turnout, more choices for voters and a more responsive legislature,” said Jeannine English, president of AARP California.
Sending more moderates to Sacramento could break partisan logjams that have paralyzed progress on crucial issues ranging from the state budget to the water crisis, failing schools and prison overcrowding, and AARP priorities such as in-home services for older people.
Veteran political analyst Tony Quinn said open primary winners would emerge presumably after campaigning beyond the influential party constituencies—unions on the Democratic side and anti-tax groups among Republicans—and take office with broader interests in mind. California Forward, a government reform group, commissioned a report coauthored by Quinn, which predicts that the passage of Proposition 14 would boost turnout by independent voters.
“It will let legislators be less robotic than just reacting to the most powerful interests in their districts,” said Quinn, who as a federal court witness defended an earlier crossover primary effort that was thrown out by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2000. Unlike that proposal, Proposition 14 won’t give crossover voters a say on party nominees but will simply advance the two top vote getters regardless of party.
In a novel feat, Proposition 14 has unified Democrats and Republicans in opposition.
Ron Nehring, chairman of the California Republican Party, said a convention of party members will still endorse a candidate to run in the open primary, the downside being that party insiders would make the choice without a vote of the rank-and-file.
Democratic Chairman John Burton called predictions of moderation “absolute baloney,” and said a brief experiment with crossover primaries a few years ago didn’t seem to make the legislature more moderate.
The parties worry about higher primary costs and, to their dismay, the possibility of a November ballot with two Democrats or two Republicans facing off.
Surveys indicate voters favor open primaries. But the proposition nonetheless faces rough sledding, said Dan Schnur, director of the University of Southern California’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics. Democrats and Republicans “are extremely talented in protecting this duopoly they’ve developed,” he said.
Similarly, Proposition 15, endorsed by the California for Fair Elections campaign, must overcome opposition from powerful lobbyists. They would be tapped to the tune of $350 a year to finance secretary of state campaigns, in lieu of traditional fundraising.
Proponents’ long-term goal is public financing of other state campaigns as well, said Derek Cressman, western director of the advocacy group Common Cause. But at minimum, he said, the secretary of state should be free of financial taint, “the person with the best ideas and qualifications, not just the best at raising money.”
Check out the California Voter Foundation and AARP California websites for more information.
Rita Beamish is a freelance journalist based in San Mateo, Calif.