SACRAMENTO — United in their desire to preserve the power of political parties, Democrat and Republican legislators moved Monday to undermine an upcoming ballot initiative that would abolish primary elections as they are now practiced.
In a twist that brought charges of disgraceful and sneaky behavior, they not only offered a competing measure but fused it with a potentially popular proposal to reduce state debt.
"It's a very cynical, calculated strategy," said Kevin Spillane, a consultant to the campaign that in May placed on the Nov. 2 ballot an initiative called the Voter Choice Open Primary Act.
That initiative would replace the current system of party primaries with one primary election open to all candidates and voters. The two candidates who won the most votes would then fight it out in a general election. Presidential elections as well as those for political party posts would be exempted.
The proposed constitutional revision now racing through the Legislature, however, would require that any political party that held a primary be allowed to field its top vote-earning candidate in the general election. Backers openly admitted that that language, if added to the state Constitution, would contradict the Voter Choice initiative on the ballot.
Lawmakers said they wanted to stop that initiative from demolishing the existing system's guarantee that general elections include candidates with stark political differences.
"We have nothing to fear from hearing different points of view," said Sen. Ross Johnson (R-Irvine), who co-sponsored the new measure with Sen. Dede Alpert (D-San Diego).
Johnson called the existing voter choice initiative "anti-democratic" and said its advocates showed "a breathtaking display of chutzpah" to say that the initiative favors open primaries when it will essentially abolish primaries as they are now understood; that is, as pre-elections to select party standard-bearers. He said that under that initiative, in districts where one party dominates in voter registrations the general election will probably be between two candidates from the same party.
Alpert said that although she supports open primaries, the Voter Choice initiative would "disenfranchise all of the minor parties" from placing their candidates on the general election ballot.
Before the competing measure can make it to the ballot, it must be approved by the Assembly by the same two-thirds vote in favor. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger need not approve it.
If voters approve both measures, election experts said, it is probable, based on a previous case, that the courts will adopt the one that garnered the most votes, and nullify the other.
California has been engaged in a battle over primary elections for the last decade. Voters approved an open primary in 1996, in which anyone could vote in a party primary regardless of their registration. But in 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court struck that down after determining that political parties had a right to pick their candidates.
The Voter Choice initiative attempts to avoid the pitfalls of the 2000 court ruling by creating a single pre-election unaffiliated with a particular party. It still has a partisan flavor, however, because candidates will be allowed to list their party affiliation next to their name unless party leaders object.
Critics of the primary system said Democrats and Republicans have carved out so many safe districts that there is effectively no competition. They say that has hurt efforts by moderates to win office and has contributed to the political divide in Sacramento and Washington by filling the Legislature and Congress with lawmakers who hold more extreme views than the overall populace.
"In an era when Democrats and Republicans have no use for each other, the partisans in each side are dead-set against opening up the process in any way that would further dilute the meaning of their parties," said Larry Gerston, a political science professor at San Jose State.
Gerston said he doubted that the Voter Choice initiative would lead to the election of more moderates. It is more likely, he said, to propel the best financed candidates into the general election. "There is no necessary correlation between this system and any likelihood that it would yield moderates."
The competing proposal, which was created last week, sailed through two Senate committees in the morning and by noon had passed the full Senate on a 28-3 vote. Its authors said they hoped that it would clear the Assembly by the Thursday deadline for the Legislature to place measures on the Nov. 2 ballot.
The bill's most striking facet would ask voters whether profits from the sale of surplus state property should be devoted to paying off the state's $15-billion debt. Johnson said the two topics were lumped together because there was a bipartisan consensus among lawmakers that both were the best ideas to be placed on the ballot.
But Voter Choice advocates said the two proposals were deliberately linked to make the competing ballot question more palatable to voters. They hinted that they might bring a legal challenge to throw the proposal off the ballot on the basis that it includes two unrelated topics. The California Supreme Court disqualified a previous ballot initiative for that reason.
"That could very well get knocked out by the courts for that alone," Gerston said.
Johnson said that such a challenge would fail because the Legislature -- unlike voter-launched initiatives -- would be permitted to include as many changes as it wanted on constitutional revisions.
Assemblyman Keith Richman (R-Northridge), who supports the Voter Choice initiative, said Johnson's measure "will only result in continuing partisan dysfunction in the Legislature."