62: Reform or deform?
Steven Hilll and Roy Ulrich
California voters will be asked to vote again this November on
our primary election system.
The popular "open" or "blanket" primary
passed by voters in 1996 was lost to an unfavorable U.S. Supreme
Court ruling. So, well-intentioned state leaders such as Leon
Panetta, Richard Riordan, and state controller Steve Westly are
pushing a voter initiative suggested by, oddly enough, the most
conservative justice, Antonin Scalia. The result, unfortunately, is
political deform masked as reform.
Their Proposition 62, sugar-coated with the name "Voter
Choice Open Primary Initiative," would adopt a version of a
primary system used in only one other state ’Äî Louisiana.
Proponents say that this is a more legal version of the previous
open primary, but that's just campaign hype.
Under California's earlier primary, the nominees from each
political party competed against each other in the November election
’Äî Democrats, Republicans and third-party candidates. Voters had
some choice in the November election.
In contrast, under Proposition 62, only the top two vote-getters
in the primary will be eligible to appear on the November ballot.
And here's the catch: the top two could be from the same political
In Louisiana, often the two finalists are in fact from the same
party ’Äî either two Democrats in a liberal district, or two
Republicans in a conservative district. And third-party candidates
never appear on Louisiana's final ballot.
That doesn't sound very "open." Rather than give
"voter choice," Prop 62 actually will reduce voter choice
in the decisive November election. If Proposition 62 had been in
effect since 2000, more than 350 candidates would have been barred
from appearing on the November ballot. Those candidates garnered
more than 8.2 million votes. These are votes that would be
eliminated by Prop 62.
Ironically, the major reasons cited by proponents for pushing
this measure are twofold:
- * They say it will increase voter turnout
- * They say it will elect more moderates
Yet the "top-two" primary fails on both counts.
Louisiana often ranks near the bottom in voter turnout. In 2002,
just over a third of eligible voters showed up at the polls to cast
votes in that state's congressional elections. That's not
surprising, given that voters have so few choices on the final
That alone is reason enough to reject the top-two primary. But
Louisiana's experience also negates the assertion that Prop 62 will
elect more moderates, especially in competitive statewide races.
Ex-Klansman David Duke made it into Louisiana's 1991 governor's
runoff with only 32 percent of the vote. His core of rabid
supporters held together while moderate candidates split the rest of
the vote, allowing Duke to make the final election with a low
percentage. His opponent with 37 percent, Democrat Edwin Edwards,
had been twice indicted and eventually was convicted for bribery and
fraud. One infamous bumper sticker read, "Vote the Crook, not
Then in Louisiana's 1995 gubernatorial primary, candidates from
the political middle again split the moderate vote and were
eliminated. The top two candidates were a right-wing state senator
supported by David Duke and a liberal black member of Congress, with
26 percent and 19 percent of the vote each. The right-winger won the
As Louisiana columnist Bill Decker has written, "The fact is
that Louisiana's primary system isn't a good test of the state's
mood and intentions. The multi-candidate primary is about who can
attract 20 percent to 30 percent of the vote on one day."
While California may not have to worry about ex-Klansmen
candidates, we have our own version of polarizing candidates and
demagoguery around issues of immigration and race. The
"top-two" system has a track record of exaggerating these
Oddly, the top-two primary produces an electoral schizophrenia.
The few competitive races tend to elect winners from the extremes of
the parties. But lopsided races might elect slightly more moderate
winners, since Republicans in a Democratic district can vote for the
more moderate of the final two Democratic candidates, and vice
versa. It gives opposition voters a kind of check over the major
However, in Democratic districts this could result in a decline
in racial minorities being elected, and the California legislature
being less diverse. And third parties and independent candidates are
On balance, the gain seems minimal, while the loss is great. The
desire to improve California's democracy is commendable, but this is
the wrong way to do it. There's nothing "open" about any
version of Louisiana's "top-two" primary.