Wednesday, June 9, 2010

California Ballot Measure Will Overhaul Primary Elections

With several primaries taking place across the country yesterday, candidates in dozens of local and statewide races were chosen for the general elections in November. In California, a particularly interesting ballot measure was approved by voters and could serve to change the shape of elections in the state.

Proposition 14, the Top Two Primaries Act, is a constitutional amendment that will allow all voters to participate in primary elections, rather than just voters of a particular party. Once the two candidates with the most votes are determined, they will be the only candidates in the general election, regardless of their party affiliation. So there could potentially be two Democrats or two Republicans in a general election, depending on how voters are feeling during the primary.

The ballot initiative was supported by a strange coalition of groups, including the governor, lieutenant governor, and some big California companies. Opponents have ranged from members of small parties like the Libertarian Party and the Green Party, who say that their candidate will now be pushed out of potentially contending in general elections.

The fact that big business groups like the California Chamber of Commerce are in support of the initiative makes me a bit wary of how the initiative will pan out, or perhaps more accurately, how these groups expect it to pan out. Some opponents of the initiative have claimed that enabling Republicans to vote in the same primary as Democrats could open the field to shady behavior and attempts at sabotaging another party's preferred candidate. But this seems far-fetched to me; isn't a Rush-Limbaugh-instigated vote for a weak Democrat also a loss of a vote for a Republican?

Others say that the initiative will bring about a more centrist government, as independents will likely vote for moderate voters. In a state as liberal as California, this could mean fewer liberals and Democrats occupying the various political seats in the state. But I'm not convinced that this will end up being the case. If a strong liberal candidate is running in a liberal area, that candidate should have as good a chance of ending up in the top two as he or she did otherwise.

The initiative is right to choose two finalists rather than more so that voters can't repeat a blunder like what happened in Hawaii a few weeks ago. And despite the cries of unfairness from third party candidates, this will help prevent Ralph Nader-like situations in California elections as well. I'm all for third parties being able to participate, and if people are buying into their policy ideas, then they too could be in the top two, instead of just playing the role of gadfly in the general election. In fact, this measure could potentially help to lessen the Democrat-Republican binary of hyper-partisanship by compelling voters to consider candidates' policies rather than parties. Indeed, both the Democratic and Republican parties in the state are upset with the passage of Prop 14.

Will this help create more informed voters and enhance the democratic process? That's definitely yet to be seen. But Proposition 14 could have a profound effect on elections in California, and if proven successful, could spread to other parts of the country, changing the shape of our electoral process.

Images: California state capitol (WSJ)

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