On June 8, Californians will vote on several referendums, in addition to primary races. One of those referendums, Proposition 14 (aka the Top Two Primaries Act), could hugely change how those primary races are conducted, and it would definitely not be for the better. As if to add insult to injury, but it could take down a public campaign financing measure along with it.
Prop 14 was put on the ballot through the backroom dealings of State Senator (not Lt. Gov.) Abel Moldonado, the very last holdout on the budget this year. He used the budget crisis for his own profit and one of his demands was to put this measure on the ballot. Now, his reckless action is being opposed by every political party in California and numerous electoral reform groups, groups ranging from the NAACP to the Southern California Tax Revolt Coalition.
But big business wants this to pass because of the control it could give them over elections (explanation below the fold). So your help is needed - $5, $10, $100 - whatever you can chip in to prevent California from descending further into a mess of broken government.
So just what is Prop 14? And why is it so bad?
Basically, Prop 14 would set up a system in which every voter gets the same primary ballot, with every candidate running listed on it, and the candidates with the two highest percentages from that ballot move on to the general election. (Currently, independent California voters actually are able to vote in any primary they want to.) Write-in votes would be prohibited in the general election.
Something worth noting is that this is not a proposition for an "open primary," as some claim. An open primary would allow voters to choose which primary to vote in regardless of registration, but that is NOT what this is. This would establish a "top two primary."
That doesn't sound so bad at first, but it turns out that the alleged reasons for implementing it are false. This system is already in place in Washington state and Louisiana (that bastion of transparent, honest politics!) had a similar system for most of the past forty years, so there is information available to compare these claims to.
Ballot access expert and San Francisco resident Richard Winger explores these claims briefly:
Louisiana has used "top-two" for state office since 1975. Many Louisiana gubernatorial elections have advanced candidates to the runoff who did not appeal to the center. In 1991, former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke reached the gubernatorial runoff, just as he had reached the U.S. Senate runoff in 1990. In 1995, the gubernatorial runoff was between Mike Foster, a very conservative Republican, and Cleo Fields, who had supported Jesse Jackson for president. In 1999, the runoff was between Foster and William Jefferson, who was not a moderate either.
California experience also shows that "top-two" doesn't ease partisanship. California used a system in 1998 and 2000 called a blanket primary, in which all candidates from all parties ran on the same ballot and all primary voters used that ballot.
Political scientists who studied the California Legislature say the state Senate was just as polarized and the Assembly almost as polarized during the blanket primary years...
Prop. 14 would do great damage to the social fabric, because it would stifle dissident voices. Prop. 14 would eliminate the Peace and Freedom Party from the ballot (because that party has 58,000 registered members, and Prop. 14 eliminates all parties with registration under approximately 100,000 members). Prop. 14 also eliminates write-ins. We know from the experience of Washington and Louisiana that minor party members never place first or second in the primary, so they can't campaign in the crucial six months between June and November when the voters are most interested in political ideas.
The people who place first or second in "top-two" systems are the incumbent and the challenger with the most money and name recognition. A system that doesn't include the disaffected in the general election is courting trouble. When people can't air their grievances and ideas in election campaigns, they often turn to less desirable modes of protest. The general election is for everybody, even political minorities
In another piece, he talks about how Prop 14 avoids the problem of California's broken government rather than fixing it:
The real solution to solve California's budget gridlock is to eliminate the rule that the budget can only be passed with two-thirds of the legislators in each house. To those who fear that Democrats would pass an unacceptable budget if they could pass a budget with a majority vote, consider that we Californians have the recall, the initiative, and the referendum, to rein in a legislature that might otherwise be too powerful. We have enough checks on the legislature already. We should let the majority party in the legislature govern. If the voters elect a majority party, let that majority party pass its budget. If we don't like that budget, we not only have recall, initiative or referendum, we can defeat the majority party in the next election and replace it. But having given one party a majority in the legislature, we should let it pass the budget it wants.
It's worth noting that Winger is actually an active Libertarian. You read that right - a LIBERTARIAN is advocating that allowing Democrats to pass the budgets they choose is a better solution to this problem than a top two primary.
Why is he so opposed? Well, the main reason Winger opposes Prop 14 is that it would pretty much eliminate all third parties in California, as he said. That's not to say it would get rid of much-hated spoilers - in fact, during the primary, it would probably be rare to see a candidate get a majority of the vote. And with a bunch of Democrats, Republicans, and whatever else running in the same primary, you can bet that many races would see the top two winners get ten percent of the vote or less. This is hardly the majoritarian solution it claims to be.
In fact, there isn't much "there" there in the case supporting Prop 14. In a recent radio debate between Richard Winger and the referendum's author, Lt. Gov. Moldonado, Winger frequently cited statistics and facts, while Moldonado spouted off shallow talking points. Take a listen for yourself (the whole show is about Prop 14, but the debate begins at about 12 minutes and lasts for the rest of the show):
Yet, if there is a lack of "there" in Prop 14, there certainly isn't a lack of money. The "Yes" campaign has raised well over $2 million, with big donors like Hewlett-Packard ($100,000), the California Chamber of Commerce's California Business PAC ($205,000), Pacific Life Insurance Company ($25,000), and the CEO of Netflix ($257,328.40). This is not some kind of grassroots push for electoral reform - in fact, it's exactly the opposite. Prop 14 is a major way for big business to take control of our elections. Spending in elections is predicted to increase if this passes, so companies that can afford to spend a hundred thousand dollars on a single ballot measure would surely benefit.
And an added benefit of this passing would be that it makes defeat for a modest public campaign finance proposition (Prop 15) more likely. From Ballotpedia:
Opponents of the Top Two Primary measure say that it is conflict with another measure on the June 8 ballot, the Fair Elections Act. If the two propositions are in conflict, Section 4 of Article XVIII of the California Constitution decrees, "If provisions of 2 or more measures approved at the same election conflict, those of the measure receiving the highest affirmative vote shall prevail."
Richard Winger says:
"The two election law measures that will be on the June 2010 California ballot do not fit together. The public funding measure has at least eight sections that presume that political parties nominate candidates for state office, and that independent candidates do not appear on the primary ballot. But the top-two open primary sets up a scheme under which parties would not have nominees for state office, and also provides that independent candidates would run in the primary."
And finally, Richard Winger's point that this would mean the death of California's third parties, which are some of the strongest third parties in the nation currently. In the San Francisco Chronicle, Winger writes,
Washington used a Top 2 system for the first time in 2008. For the first time since statehood, the November ballot had no minor party or independent candidates for any congressional race, or any statewide state race.
Louisiana has used a Top 2 system for state office since 1975, and never has a minor party candidate qualified for the second round.
Furthermore, Prop. 14 is far more hostile to minor parties than the version of Top 2 used in Washington state and Louisiana...
...under Prop. 14, how parties remain ballot-qualified will change drastically. Under existing California law, a party remains ballot-qualified if it polls 2 percent for any statewide race in a midterm year. But under Prop. 14, parties won't have nominees. The only way for parties to appear on the November ballot in a presidential election will be either to have approximately 100,000 registered members, or to submit a petition (each election) of approximately 1 million signatures.
Prop 14 is clearly undemocratic. It doesn't really do anything about the divisiveness of California politics, it increases spending in elections, and it shuts out the voice of many candidates and hundreds of thousands of California citizens.
So here's what you can do. The "No on Prop 14" campaign desperately needs money in order to compete with the big bucks of the "Yes" campaign. For now, the place to donate is StopTopTwo.org. Every little bit helps, and please be generous! Plus, if you donate $14 or more you get a free bumper sticker.
Everything helps! Talk to friends, family, and everyone else - but for now, donating is the most important thing you can do. The election is June 8, so this is urgent.
Thank you to every who contributes. You are doing your small part to keeping America's elections intact.