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The Prop. 14 bait-and-switch

Supporters of the mislabeled open primary initiative say it would produce more 'moderate' state leaders. In reality, Prop. 14 would increase the corrupting influence of money in politics and remove smaller parties from the general election ballot.

June 05, 2010|Michael Feinstein

When most Americans took high school civics, we were taught that the purpose of elections was to represent the people in government. Proposition 14 is being sold on the premise that it will deliver representatives of a more "moderate" political bent, a position The Times' editorial board cited in its endorsement of the ballot initiative. Since when did the purpose of elections change from representing the people -- whatever their views -- to socially engineering a specific result? Seduced by this prospect, Proposition 14 confuses ends with means, and it would reduce voter choice and political voice while unfairly favoring incumbents, big money and party insiders.

In eliminating party primaries and expanding the number of voters primary candidates have to reach, Proposition 14 puts greater emphasis on name recognition and early fundraising, increasing the corrupting influence of money and making it harder for competing candidates and movements to survive, let alone contend. It is not surprising that those most able to buy elections are funding Proposition 14, including some of California's largest corporations.

Because of pressure not to "split the primary vote" of their party's faithful, incumbents and well-funded candidates would be even more able under Proposition 14 to "clear the field" and squeeze out competitors, as Arnold Schwarzenegger did to fellow Republicans during the 2003 recall election, putting more power into the hands of party machines and insiders to effectively select general election candidates. As a result, Proposition 14 would stifle diversity and competition within the major parties and limit the choices of independent voters, who already can vote within the major party primaries.

Even though the number of independent voters is growing at the expense of the Democrats and Republicans, Proposition 14 would also effectively force those same voters to vote only for Democrats and Republicans in the general election. And all this for what reason? To allegedly elect more so-called moderates (who decides what "moderate" is?), even though there is no empirical basis upon which to base this claim?

Experience with similar top two systems in Louisiana and Washington shows they serve as incumbent protection plans while doing little to shift political discourse.

Washington had its first top two experience in 2008. Only one of the 140 total lost in the primary. In the general election, fewer seats changed parties (seven) than in 2006 (13), when parties were allowed to conduct their own primaries.

Louisiana used a top two system for Congress from 1978 to 2006. In all those years, only one incumbent was defeated (not counting two that ran against each because of redistricting). When Louisiana switched back to a traditional system in 2008, two incumbents were defeated.

A U.S. District Court will consider the constitutionality of Washington's top two system this year. Louisiana's model is hardly one to emulate, as it is best known for advancing former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke to the 1991 gubernatorial general election because of a vote-splitting effect unique to the top two system.

Proposition 14 is also a frontal assault on California's smaller parties. One way these parties remain qualified to list candidates on the ballot is by receiving at least 2% of the vote in a general election for statewide office, such as governor or secretary of state. But under Proposition 14, minor parties won't have a spot on the general election ballot for statewide office. The other way for parties to qualify is to have a certain number of voter registrations. But if this were the only to qualify today, the Libertarian and Peace & Freedom parties would be off the ballot and the Greens would be under threat. Disappearing from a general election ballot makes it far more difficult for smaller parties to retain and recruit members.

This should be a canary in the coal mine about what's wrong with Proposition 14. A system that increases democracy would give voters more opportunities, not fewer, to elect representatives who reflect their views; eliminating candidates and parties from the general election ballot is not the way to achieve this goal. Neither is front-loading the process to a June primary election that traditionally has lower turnout and is whiter and wealthier than in November.

Finally, there is no proof that Proposition 14 would contribute to better government in Sacramento.

Unlike the high-risk Proposition 14 lottery, electoral systems have been in place for decades around the world that our state could openly compare and contrast. Why not consider multi-seat districts with proportional representation, where Democrats and Republicans could win seats according to their percentage of the vote -- along with parties like the Greens if they have enough support -- as in Europe?

But whatever the approach, changing our democracy should be about embracing our state's extraordinary diversity with more choice, not less. Vote no on Proposition 14.

Michael Feinstein is co-chairman of the Green Party of the United States and a former mayor and City Council member of Santa Monica.

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