A federal judge was right to uphold the constitutionality of Proposition 198, the 1996 ballot measure that gives California an open primary beginning with next June's election. Even so, the ruling of U.S. District Judge David F. Levi of Sacramento means that millions of California voters may be in for a big shock when they get their ballots.
No longer will Democrats receive just a Democratic ballot in primary elections, Republicans a Republican ballot, and so on for voters registered as members of six minor parties. And no longer will independent voters receive only a mini-ballot listing nonpartisan issues. A new look will be in place for the first time since 1909, when California's closed primary system was initiated.
Going into the voting booth next June 2, everyone will receive the same primary ballot, a long one listing the names of all contenders for office. Voters will be free to pick and choose: a Democrat for governor, for instance, a Republican for senator, a Reform Party candidate for the House. It will be an open primary--wide open.
And yet another shock may be in store: The new law may mean that California cannot hold a binding presidential primary in 2000. Republicans and Democrats say their rules do not allow for a primary in which any but their own party voters can participate. If these rules are upheld by the courts, the parties may have to choose their national convention delegates by state convention or a caucus system.
Proposition 198 was one of three voter-approved ballot measures left in legal limbo by constitutional challenges as the state headed into the 1998 elections. The others are officeholder term limits and campaign finance reform. The uncertainty created by these lawsuits has thrown California's political establishment into turmoil, not knowing what rules will be in force for the 1998 elections.
Now it appears that at least the open primary issue has been settled. The political parties that challenged the initiative say they will appeal Levi's ruling, but the mechanics for setting up the 1998 elections are already underway and it will be virtually impossible to change gears, the office of Secretary of State Bill Jones has said. Jones and others will have to successfully carry out a huge job of education to ward off widespread confusion in the voting booth.
Initiative sponsors said they hoped to make primary voting more representative of the total California electorate. In particular, they wanted to overcome a trend toward conservative Republican dominance of GOP primaries. No one is sure whether the open primary will do that, though any encouragement of greater voter participation is a good thing.
Judge Levi said it was not his prerogative to judge whether the open primary is a good idea. "It may prove to be a bad idea," he said, "in which case the people of the state presumably will act to reform the system in the future as they have in the past."
Without a doubt.