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Bid Launched to Bring Back Open Primary

Business groups say such elections would encourage moderate candidates. Previous system was rejected by U.S. Supreme Court.

November 13, 2002|Dan Morain | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Dismayed by low turnout and fearing increased partisanship among legislators, major business interests are planning an initiative campaign to create a new open primary system aimed at helping moderates win office.

The concept would make partisan races for governor and other statewide offices, along with races for the Legislature and Congress, more like campaigns for the state superintendent of public instruction or municipal elections, which are nonpartisan.

California Chamber of Commerce President Allan Zaremberg and Bill Hauck, head of the Business Roundtable, said Tuesday that under their proposal, aimed for the 2004 ballot, candidates would list their party affiliation in primary elections. But voters, regardless of their party, would receive a single primary ballot and vote for the candidate of their choice. The two candidates with the most votes would face each other in the general election.

The proposal comes after an election in which roughly half of registered voters cast ballots, and two years after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down California's previous open primary law.

Backers of the proposal include proponents of the 1996 version, known as a blanket primary. Zaremberg and Hauck said the business groups are sending the proposal to constitutional experts to determine whether it would withstand legal challenges, and airing it before focus groups.

In most instances, the top two vote-getters would be a Democrat and a Republican. But in some legislative and congressional districts that are heavily Republican or Democratic, candidates receiving the most primary votes -- and squaring off in the general election -- could come from the same party.

Hauck said he believes the proposal could help moderates win legislative seats.

"We can't let this state get to the point where it is governed by ideologues on either end of the spectrum," Hauck said.

More than 60% of the voters in 1996 approved the open primary, and turnout increased in the March 1998 primary under the new system.

But acting on a lawsuit brought by political parties, the Supreme Court struck down the system, ruling that political party members, and not voters at large, had a constitutional right to pick candidates of their choice.

Political parties are sure to oppose the latest version. California Republican Party spokesman Rob Stutzman said there is "little enthusiasm among party leaders for an open primary." State Democratic Party executive Bob Mulholland called the proposal a "Trojan horse."

"They want to repeal all the progressive rules, such as the eight-hour workday, such as environmental protections," Mulholland said. "They want to take over the Legislature on behalf of the big corporate interests."

The proposal would give voters who decline to state their party affiliation broader rights to vote in primaries. But Mulholland said the proposal could disenfranchise supporters of third-party candidates by denying those candidates a place on general election ballots, unless the candidates should happen to be among the top two vote-getters.

Because most districts are dominated by either Democrats or Republicans, there were only a handful of competitive races in this month's election. Most races were effectively decided in the March primary, when most voters were party loyalists who generally vote for either the most conservative or the most liberal candidates.

"This Legislature," Hauck added, "is increasingly going to go left and right. It is out of balance. That is not good for anybody in California. The decision making represents the point of view of a very small number of people. What we're trying to achieve here is a Legislature that reflects the views of all Californians."

Proponents expect to raise $2 million to gather signatures for what would be a constitutional amendment. They don't need to turn in signatures to place such a measure on the November 2004 ballot until 2004.

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