California voters OK reform of primary system


The biggest message in Western elections yesterday was California's Proposition 14 -- the ballot measure that aims to reduce the power of hardliners in both political parties. More than 54 percent of the California voters -- fed up with extremists who cause gridlock -- approved the reform.

From now on, if the reform isn't stalled by lawsuits, primary elections for most high-profile offices in California will work more like general elections -- all candidates for an office will be presented to all voters, and the two candidates who win the most votes will advance to the general election.

Washington state is trying the same "Top Two" reform, and while there are critics, the reform has a chance of improving politics around the West, as I wrote in a recent succinct HCN piece headlined "Going to extremes."

The Los Angeles Times reports the Proposition 14 news:

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who championed the open-primary measure, called its passage a "historic change" that "sends a clear message that Californians are tired of partisan gridlock and dysfunction."

... Under an open primary system, voters will no longer be limited to choosing among candidates from their own parties. Proposition 14 puts the top two vote-getters in primary races for congressional, state legislative and statewide offices, regardless of political party, in a face-off in the general election.

Backers of the measure said the shift would produce more moderate candidates because they would have to appeal to a wider group of voters.

The San Francisco Chronicle reports:

Opponents vowed to take the fight to court and predicted it could take years to sort out.

"I don't know how quickly or if it even will come into effect," said Christina Tobin, chairwoman of the Stop Top Two campaign and a Libertarian candidate for secretary of state.

Minor parties probably will seek to have the measure thrown out because it could limit their access to the ballot. Major parties, which also opposed Prop. 14, are likely to seek court review ...

 Whatever the courts do, it's clear that voters want fundamental reform.

For more info on reforming primaries, here's a former Oregon secretary of state's call for reform in the New York Times ... a Tom Friedman column for reform in the Times ... a balanced report on the potential negatives and positives of Proposition 14 ... a website by opponents of Proposition 14, including some progressives and libertarians ...  a Washington newspaper editor who likes his state's Top Two ... and a Sacramento Bee editorial endorsing California's Top Two.



About Ray

Ray has been a Western journalist since 1979. He's now High Country News senior editor, based in Bozeman, Montana. He's earned national recognition including a George Polk Award for political reporting, a Sidney Hillman Foundation Journalism Award for investigating oil-field accidents, and an Investigative Reporters & Editors scroll for going undercover as a prison inmate. He's had three novels published.