Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Open primaries another path to moderation?

SACRAMENTO — Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger likely will go to the end of his days in the Capitol frustrated by the unwillingness of the two major parties to work together, especially in times of crisis.

But he apparently is trying to plant the seeds of compromise for future governors, having led the successful redistricting ballot initiative, which he contends will make lawmakers more responsive to the needs of constituents.

He will soon pivot to another pet reform that he says he hopes would bring even more levelheadedness to Sacramento: open primaries.

"The next thing is open primaries," Schwarzenegger told a crowd during a late October rally in San Diego. "That's how we have to walk down that road and create the real change."

The system would allow the top two vote-getters — regardless of party — in an open primary to advance to a general election runoff.

Two Democrats or two Republicans could end up facing each other in November in legislative, gubernatorial or congressional contests.

That means voters could choose candidates from either party. Currently, parties allow only those registered with them, or unaffiliated, such as decline-to-state voters, to participate in their primaries.

The rationale behind such a move would be to force candidates to the political center in a general election runoff by relying on voters of the other party to win.

"If you were in a safe Democratic district, Advertisementyou'd have to go over and get Republican and independent votes to win," said Alan Hoffenblum, a GOP consultant and co-editor of California Target Book, a publication that analyzes legislative races.

"Vice versa with the Republicans. You wouldn't be beholden to just the extreme of your party."

That would theoretically temper their behavior in the Legislature, which would see more compromise on such issues as the budget and taxes.

Leaders of the Republican and Democratic parties are opposed, saying it would effectively take the parties out of play in huge swathes around the state and weaken their ability to control the outcome of who represents their party.

"This would force political parties to abandon even more of the state than they do now," said Ron Nehring, chairman of the state Republican Party. "If a party doesn't have a candidate on the general election ballot, a party has no reason to be involved. Is it healthy to our democracy to not have our parties engaged in every part of the state?"

Others say that it would lead to an increase in money in campaigns, giving wealthier candidates an unfair advantage, and providing an opening for independent groups and special interests to become more involved than the parties themselves.

"For anybody who runs campaigns, it's a good idea," said Bill Cavala, a Democratic strategist. "Interest groups would be in the driver's seat. Groups doing independent expenditures will see a new way of spending money and they'll be involved. It would quintuple the amount of money. Clearly, it's an incentive for interest groups to make sure they had a finalist in the November general election," or to at least influence the outcome between two candidates of the same party.

California had an open primary system from 1998-2000 before the U.S. Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional because it violated a political party's First Amendment right of association. But the high court in March approved an open primary in Washington state, in which there are no party nominations and candidates from all political parties run on the same primary ballot to produce a "top-two" general election.

There's little data from the 1998 and 2000 primary elections that showed any ill effects of the open primary system, said Bob Mulholland, campaign adviser to the Democratic state party.

"But it's clear, tens of thousands of people wandered into the other party's primaries," Mulholland said. "We the Democratic Party believe we have the right to determine who votes in our primaries. We don't want people in other parties voting in our primaries."

Some government reform groups don't view open primaries as a top priority.

"I'd put Election Day registration at the top of the list," said Kathay Feng, director of California Common Cause. "To the extent (open primaries) makes other proposals possible, I'm willing to pair them. But there are other reforms with higher priority, like campaign finance."

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