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DECISION '98 / THE FINAL COUNT

Prop. 3 Loss May Muzzle State's Presidential Role

November 05, 1998|MARK Z. BARABAK | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

A few weeks ago, with great fanfare, California advanced its presidential primary to have a bigger say in national politics. On Tuesday, voters effectively taped their own mouths shut.

By rejecting Proposition 3, one of those obscure ballot measures that drew less notice than a library whisper, voters may have ended up silencing their voices in arguably the most important political decision they can make: picking the next presidential standard-bearers.

The reason goes back to Proposition 198, the blanket primary initiative passed in March 1996. The measure tossed out decades of precedent and threw California politics wide open by allowing a voter to cast a primary ballot for any candidate, regardless of party registration.

The problem is: That conflicts with the rules the two major political parties have set for their presidential primaries, in which delegates to their national nominating convention will be chosen. Theoretically, the parties could refuse to seat California's biggest-in-the-nation delegations when the 2000 nominating conventions roll around.

To eliminate that possibility--however remote--Proposition 3 would have brought California into compliance in time for the March 2000 primary, suspending the blanket system for presidential balloting.

After a virtually nonexistent campaign, voters Tuesday rejected the measure, 54% to 46%. The result Wednesday: a head-on collision with the proverbial law of unintended consequences.

"The people of California have overwhelmingly said, 'We want more options. We want a greater say in the political process. Don't limit our options,' " observed Michael Madrid, political director of the state Republican Party. "The bitter irony is that [limiting of options] is exactly what's happened."

National party rules require that only party members participate in presidential primaries or choose the party's national convention delegates--the ones who officially nominate the party's choice for president.

"We feel it's only proper the people deciding who is going to be the party's standard-bearer are people who want to be associated with the party," said Rick Boylan, who runs the delegate selection process for the Democratic National Committee.

To comply with those rules--and the national parties insist that California comply, no exceptions--state Republicans and Democrats are contemplating alternatives that could effectively disenfranchise millions of voters.

One alternative would leave the nominating process in the hands of a few thousand partisan faithful, who give up a weekend and pay their own freight to attend the party's state conventions. Another envisions a series of caucuses--picture 100,000 simultaneous kaffeeklatsches from Eureka to San Ysidro--where the truly committed would get to apportion the state's nominating delegates.

"Logistically, you're talking about one of the most challenging operations any party has attempted probably in the history of American politics," Madrid said.

A third, more inclusive option, presents its own logistical headaches: mailing, getting back, then tabulating ballots sent to millions of members of the two major parties.

'Beauty Contest' Called Possible

Either way, the presidential primary in which most Californians participate March 7, 2000, could be meaningless--a "beauty contest," as it's known--with voters choosing a favorite but having no say in how the state's nominating delegates are actually divvied up.

Unhappy with their options for compliance, state Democrats and Republicans fervently hope the problem goes away.

After investing virtually no time or effort on behalf of Proposition 3--strategists for both parties said the governor's race and other competitive contests were much higher priorities--the parties are looking to the courts to resolve the matter.

In tandem, the state Democratic and Republican parties brought a federal lawsuit to overturn Proposition 198 and reinstate the old voting system, with Democrats participating solely in the Democratic primary, Republicans voting only for Republicans, and the like.

Independents and voters who decline to state a party preference would be excluded from voting in the partisan primaries, just as they were before the state's inaugural blanket primary in June.

A federal judge upheld Proposition 198 in November 1997, but the parties are hoping for better luck on appeal. A decision is expected by next spring, about the same time the state parties are required to submit their compliance plans to national headquarters in Washington.

Overturning the measure would satisfy the national parties, if not the 59% of California voters who approved Proposition 198.

"We have just begun this change, and we should give it a chance to work," said Assemblyman Jack Scott (D-Altadena) in the official ballot argument he submitted against Proposition 3. "Let's not turn the clock back on reform."

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