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Free Citizen

This writer espouses individual liberty, free markets, and limited government.

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Location: Jackson, Mississippi, United States

Monday, June 14, 2010

George Will on California's "Open Primary"

At this posting, there are 58 comments on this piece.

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On June 8, California voters approved Proposition 14, a measure for a Louisiana-style "top two open primary" for state and congressional elections. I wish that George Will had written about it several months ago, instead of waiting until after the election.

"... most new ideas are false, so most ideas for improvements make matters worse."

This is hardly a novel idea. 58.2 percent of California voters defeated such a proposal for state elections in 1915. Prop. 62, which would have imposed a "top two open primary" for state and congressional offices, lost in 51 of the state's 58 counties in 2004.

North Dakota voters rejected a similar measure in 1921, while 66 percent of Oregon voters said "no" to the "open primary" in 2008. Five times between 1966 and 1979, the Mississippi legislature enacted the "open primary" for state and local elections, but its implementation was stymied each time.

"[California's] Proposition 14 is an attempt to change government policies by changing the political process. ... . The two [candidates] receiving the most votes will be on November ballots, regardless of the desires of the political parties the nominees may claim to represent."

I would argue that the top two vote-getters are not "nominees," since the parties will no longer have any way of officially nominating candidates, except for president. The parties, of course, will still be able to endorse candidates, but there will be no guarantee that a party's candidate will reach the final, deciding election.

"Proposition 14's purpose is to weaken and marginalize parties, traditionally the principal vehicles for voter education and mobilization. It would strip them of their core function of selecting candidates who represent the preferences of their members. It infringes the First Amendment protection of freedom of association, which includes the right of parties not to associate with candidates they do not select."

There will definitely be federal litigation against Prop. 14. The only states now using this type of system for all state and/or congressional elections are Washington and Louisiana. Washington's "top two," which that state first used in 2008, is facing a trial in U. S. district court in November, as well as future litigation in the 9th U. S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

"... such [minor] parties -- Green, Libertarian, [American Independent, and Peace and Freedom] -- which previously could place candidates on November ballots, will almost always be excluded from those [ballots] by failing to run first or second in [the first round.]"

Californians also won't be seeing independents on their November ballots, other than for president.

"But, then, blandness is the point of this reform. It seeks to generate a homogenized political class, one not lumpy with liberals and conservatives who, being conviction politicians, do not always play well with others."

This claim-- that it will produce candidates who are all more "centrist"-- was one of the reasons that the U. S. Supreme Court struck down the blanket primary.[1] However, there's no evidence that the "top two open primary" results in a more moderate political class. Louisiana, e. g., has used its "open primary" since the 1970s, and that state's politicians are certainly not more moderate than pre-1970s politicos.

"Putting Proposition 14 on the ballot was the price paid for the vote of Abel Maldonado. He was a Republican state senator last year when three Republican votes were needed to enable Democrats to pass another tax increase that supposedly would solve the budget crisis that preceded the current one.

"[Maldonado] worked across the aisle to reach a compromise that gave the political class access to more of other people's money."


That $13 billion tax increase was the largest state tax hike in U. S. history. There were absolutely no legislative hearings on the bill that sparked Prop. 14; in fact, the bill was drawn up and rushed to passage between 3 a. m. and 6 a. m.

As George Will notes, only 8.9 percent of California's eligible voters supported Prop. 14.

Will wrote an excellent column when the U. S. Supreme Court was considering the case against the blanket primary, California Democratic Party v. Jones (2000).

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[1] In the blanket primary which California used in 1998 and 2000, all candidates of all parties were listed on a single ballot, and the top vote-getter from each party advanced to the general election.

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