Open primary proposal headed for state ballot
2 candidates from same party could meet in a general election
John Wildermuth, Chronicle Political Writer
A political battle that made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court is about to be fought again as an initiative to allow California voters to chose any candidate in a primary election is poised to go on the November ballot.
The initiative would transform California primary elections, virtually eliminating political parties from the mix and opening the way for November elections that could feature two Democrats or two Republicans, a system similar to one governing elections in Louisiana.
"People want real electoral reform,'' said state Controller Steve Westly. "I'm proud to be a Democrat, but both parties want to cling to the way things have always been.''
"The open primary will help break the partisan gridlock so we can begin solving the problems facing California,'' state Secretary of Education Richard Riordan, former Los Angeles mayor and Republican candidate for governor in 2002, added in a written statement.
If support for the proposed initiative is bipartisan, so is the opposition. State Democratic and Republican party leaders pledged to battle the new attempt to end California's partisan primaries.
"We're absolutely going to fight this,'' said Duf Sundheim, chairman of the state Republican Party. "It's such a bad idea on so many fronts.''
"I don't see a need, and I don't see a benefit,'' added Art Torres, state Democratic Party chairman.
In 1996, both major parties also fought against Proposition 198, the first open primary measure. The effort was fruitless, as the measure collected nearly 60 percent of the vote and won in every California county.
It eliminated the state's traditional partisan primaries and dumped every candidate, Democrat, Republican, Green or whatever, onto a single ballot. Voters, regardless of party, could choose the candidate they wanted. But the top finisher in each party was still selected as the party's candidate in the November general election.
The open primary was used in 1998 and 2000, but in June 2000 the U.S. Supreme Court backed the party leaders and declared the open primary law unconstitutional on a 7-to-2 vote.
California was "forcing political parties to associate with those who do not share their beliefs'' by opening the primaries to members of other parties, said Justice Antonin Scalia.
Supporters of the new open primary measure collected more than 900,000 signatures for the groundbreaking initiative, far more than the 598,000 required. The signatures now are being verified, and backers expect the measure to be approved for the ballot sometime in April.
The new initiative deals with the constitutional concerns by turning the election process on its head. Instead of using primary elections to pick each party's candidate for federal and state offices, the new system would wipe out party primaries. Instead, it would create an open primary with the top two finishers, regardless of party, advancing into a November election.
In more liberal parts of the state, such as the Bay Area, two Democrats could face off in November. Orange County voters, on the other hand, might chose between two Republicans.
That already happens in local, nonpartisan elections, said Garry South, a Democratic consultant who's running the open primary campaign.
"In 2001, James Hahn and Antonio Villaraigosa, two Democrats, were on the final ballot for mayor of Los Angeles,'' said South. "This year, there are two Republicans in the runoff for mayor of San Diego, and no one thinks anything of it.''
While parties could endorse candidates in the new primaries, they will have no official say in who gets to run, South added.
That's not the way it will happen, argued Sundheim, the GOP leader. Both parties would be forced to limit the field in each contest to keep from getting shut out of the November race.
"If I have four Republicans running against two Democrats, I'm going to have to knock off three of those four because it's in my best interest,'' he said.
The initiative would have no effect on presidential primaries, since voters technically don't pick candidates but choose representatives to their party conventions.
Opening the primaries to all voters will result in candidates who better represent the majority of Californians, initiative backers argue. They say the present system favors the conservative and liberal extremes over moderates of any party. The surge in voter turnout for the open primaries in 1998 and 2000 also shows it's what the voters want.
"We are opening up the electoral process to increase voter choices and voter participation so that sensible candidates in both parties can win public office in California,'' Riordan said.
That's one reason moderates like Westly, Riordan, former GOP state Sen. Rebecca Morgan of Los Altos and former Democratic Rep. Leon Panetta of Monterey are co-chairs of the initiative effort.
They've also picked up some high-powered financial support for the open primary effort, collecting nearly $2.4 million.
Many of the people tapped for the campaign are the same Southern California-based philanthropists and business leaders Riordan sought out when he was mayor. Charles Munger, head of Pasadena-based Wesco Financial, gave $200,000, while Otis Booth, Stewart Resnick and Jerry Perenchio gave $100,000 each, and Eli Broad, Haim Saban and Robert Day each donated $50,000.
Countrywide Home Loans gave $350,000 to the initiative effort, while the Association of California School Administrators, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, Camarillo businesswoman Elizabeth Rogers and Riordan donated $100,000 each. Morgan and former Gap Chairman Donald Fisher gave $50,000, while Cisco Systems CEO John Chambers and Hewlett-Packard each contributed $25,000.
My Take:As if what California needed was Louisiana-style campaigns, this really is just an effort by moderate Republicans to put conservatives, and by moderate Demos to put liberals on the Endangered Species List. Riodan, the crapweasel he is, outright says it - "so that sensible candidates in both parties can win public office." DAMMIT!!!
The only silver lining is that this is ABSOLUTELY consultant welfare. The people who run campaigns' profits will double or triple should this pass. Campaigns are going to become more and more expensive, and in the long run people are going to start complaining about skyrocketing campaign costs, and will surely whine for some tighter Campaign Finance Reform...GREAAAAT!!!