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Prop. 14 won't destroy third parties

Abolishing partisan primaries would help give voters more choice.

May 26, 2010

California politics are enlarged and enlivened by the presence of minor parties. They rarely succeed in electing a candidate to office, but they broaden political debate and thus test mainstream assumptions. So when those parties, most notably the Greens, claim that some new development threatens their existence, it's worth listening.

What to do, however, when the Greens jump into bed with the Democratic and Republican parties to oppose a ballot measure intended to shake up major party domination of California politics? It's then that the wise voter should proceed with hearty skepticism.

In recent days, the debate over Proposition 14, which would abolish California's partisan primaries for most offices and replace them with a system similar to Los Angeles' process for electing its leaders, has turned into a debate over whether it would hurt the viability of third parties. On Saturday, Green Party supporters argued that the measure would go so far as to "destroy" the smaller parties. On Monday, a coalition of opponents raised the level of hyperbole with the bold claim that it would "end democracy in California." It wouldn't. Proposition 14 would allow voters to select their favorite candidate in a primary, just as they do today. The top two finishers would then advance to a general election. The winner would get the office. That's hardly revolutionary. The only difference from today's system is that the primary would include all candidates from all parties, and that the top two finishers in that contest could both be Democrats or Republicans — or Greens, for that matter. In the end, to win the office, a candidate still needs to win the support of a majority of voters.

So why are Greens so exercised over this measure? Because it would mean that minor party candidates would not make it to the second round of elections in many districts. That would deny the Green Party publicity, and that's their fear. It wouldn't deny them offices in any part of the state where they enjoy strong support, and it wouldn't help them elect their candidates in those areas where they've failed to convince a majority of voters that they have more to offer than the big parties. For the most part, they would go on losing in June just as they now lose in November.

What ought to reveal this campaign as a sham is that the state Democratic and Republican parties are supporting the Greens in their opposition and crying crocodile tears over the fate of minor parties should Proposition 14 pass. Let's be clear: Neither the state GOP nor the state Democratic Party cares about the Green Party. Indeed, they'd be perfectly happy to see the Greens "destroyed." The major parties are opposing Proposition 14 because it upends rules that Democrats and Republicans have mastered and used to protect safe seats for their members — and to protect them from challenges by organizations such as the Green Party.

Proposition 14 won't solve all of California's political problems. As we have said before, it's a modest step that, in combination with redistricting reform, will remove some of today's incentive for elected officials to cater merely to the most partisan elements of their base. If that drives state Democratic and Republican leaders a little bit crazy, that's reason enough to vote for it — and more than enough for the Greens to take a second look at their bedfellows in this campaign.

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