SACRAMENTO — Proponents of an open primary argued Wednesday that it would bring back disaffected voters by allowing them to vote for any candidate--Democrat, Republican or minor party member--in a primary election.
In particular, the open primary would appeal to "many of the moderate voters who have thrown up their hands at the present system," said state Sen. Lucy Killea, a Democrat-turned-independent from San Diego.
But the chairmen of the state Democratic and Republican parties said the proposal, which goes before voters in the March 26 primary, would effectively undermine the basic purposes of the political party structure.
"We basically have a system that works," said GOP Chairman John Herrington of Walnut Creek. "It is not broken."
Bill Press of Los Angeles, the Democratic Party chief, said: "We believe this is a dangerous measure. It's dangerous to the political process as we have known it for 45 years in California."
At issue during a special legislative hearing Wednesday was Proposition 198, the initiative sponsored primarily by moderate Republicans that would do away with separate party balloting in primary elections.
In an open primary, each registered voter would get a single ballot listing all candidates for office. Going down the list, the voter could pick and choose among any candidates.
If such a plan were in effect this year, a voter could choose President Clinton or any of the Republicans running for president. The voter then could vote to nominate a Republican for the state Senate and a Democrat for the Assembly, or a member of any of the six qualified minor parties in the state.
The candidates that emerged with the most votes in their respective parties would be the nominees.
Now, Democrats get a Democratic ballot, Republicans a Republican ballot, Libertarians a Libertarian ballot, and so on. The major purpose of the primary is to allow each party to nominate its candidates to run in the general election.
The leading proponent of the open primary has been Rep. Tom Campbell of Stanford, a moderate who lost a bitter GOP primary battle for the U.S. Senate to conservative commentator Bruce Herschensohn in 1992.
Conservatives have come to dominate moderates in Republican primaries in recent years and have taken over virtually all the key posts in the state Republican Party.
Much of the money needed to qualify the initiative for the ballot came from Campbell supporters, such as computer company founders David Packard and William Hewlett.
The chief advocate for Proposition 198 at the joint hearing of the Senate and Assembly elections committee was Eugene C. Lee, a veteran UC Berkeley political science professor.
Lee said the open primary would increase voter participation, allow independents to vote in party primaries, enhance the clout of minority-party voters in overwhelmingly Democrat or Republican legislative districts, and require candidates to appeal to the entire electorate.
"The guiding principle that leads me to support this is fairness and choice," Lee said.
But Herrington, Press and other opponents countered that open primaries would drive up election campaign costs and allow one party to play tricks on another.
With Clinton running unopposed in the March 26 California primary, Press said, "We could organize a million Democrats to go out on March 26 and vote for [Republican] Pat Buchanan and blow the Republican Convention all to hell. But I don't think I have that right."