Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

California Proposition 14: the one-party act

Jerry Stratton, February 8, 2010

California’s Proposition 14, the “top two primaries act” looks like an attempt by California politicians to protect themselves from voter revolt. It’s clearly about reducing choices to two—and two who aren’t even necessarily different voices. If we really wanted better choices, we’d remove the government from the primary process and remove the artificial barriers to ballot access.

Proposition 14 sounds a lot like California politicians want to avoid Scott Brown-like upsets. If Massachusetts had a system like this, the voters would have had a choice between Martha Coakley and Michael Capuano, both Democrats, rather than between Democrat Coakley and Republican Scott Brown.

Massachusetts December 8 primary results
1.Martha Coakley310,827 votesDemocrat
2.Michael E. Capuano184,791 votesDemocrat
3.Scott Brown145,465 votesRepublican
4.Alan Khazei88,929 votesDemocrat
5.Steve Pagliuca80,248 votesDemocrat

Given the tendency to go with the perceived winner, Massachusetts’s votes probably would have been even more lopsided under a “top two primary” system. Massachusetts voters would never have had the opportunity to move to Scott Brown, because Brown would not have been on the ballot. There’s always a tendency to “vote for the winner”. That’s why campaigns always try to play up (or even release their own) polls that put their candidate ahead. Move that tendency into the primary, and it’s likely that in districts that lean heavily to one party, both of the top vote-getters will be from the same party. Massachusetts would have been guaranteed a Democrat.

I’m sure the Democrats wish they’d thought of this last year while they were trying to figure out how to bypass the voters and just appoint Ted Kennedy’s successor.

Proposition 14 will remove choices from the ballot. It will reduce the voices heard during the election process. That’s probably its purpose: incumbent protection. California’s Governor Schwarzenegger comes right out and confirms it, though he tries to make it sound like a win:

Schwarzenegger says California's state legislators are “scared of everything because their main purpose is to get re-elected” and that this measure will solve that problem.

How will this solve that problem? By ensuring that legislators don’t have to worry as much about being re-elected—by making re-election much more likely. Schwarzenegger’s complaint is that the legislature is afraid to do what the voters don’t want them to do. What’s the purpose of an election without that fear? You might as well move to a system of appointments, or to hereditary rule (as some people seemed to want in Massachusetts).

Proposition 14 will also marginalize third parties and even reduce the ability of the underdog in the big two to have an affect on the election. It’s going to silence the independent vote. The independent who might have considered looking into third party candidates during the primary will now be afraid that doing so will help the incumbent. They’ll also be afraid to vote for underdogs in their own party. And because only the top two candidates from the primary get to go into the election, there won’t be any third parties on the November ballot—no more Conservative Party upsets in New York.

Proposition 14 will end up lengthening elections: the primary will be the real election in many cases. And in districts that lean to one party, the other party is going to have to spend money early just to ensure that their candidate makes it to the general election.

The state should never have become involved in how parties choose their candidates. The state should have rules for getting on the general election ballot; parties or individuals should handle their own primaries. Instead, though, Proposition 14 furthers state control of the parties. It appears to be inserting state control over party committees:

(c) The Legislature shall provide for partisan elections for presidential candidates, and political party and party central committees, including an open presidential primary whereby the candidates on the ballot are those found by the Secretary of State to be recognized candidates throughout the nation or throughout California for the office of President of the United States, and those whose names are placed on the ballot by petition, but excluding any candidate who has withdrawn by filing an affidavit of noncandidacy.

(d) A political party that participated in a primary election for a partisan office pursuant to subdivision (c) has the right to participate in the general election for that office and shall not be denied the ability to place on the general election ballot the candidate who received, at the primary election, the highest vote among that party’s candidates.

Proposition 14 isn’t an attempt to remove partisanship from politics. It’s an attempt to create a one-party system, where that one party is controlled by the government.

“This measure shall be known and maybe cited as the ‘Top Two Candidates Open Primary Act.’” Maybe cited? Is that a typo for “may be cited”?

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