The open primary initiative on the June 8 ballot would produce scores of Democrat-vs.-Democrat showdowns in California, drive up campaign costs and increase nonpartisan voters' influence, according to an analysis from the Center for Governmental Studies.
Proposition 14 would eliminate the party-based primary election system for statewide, legislative, Board of Equalization and congressional candidates. It is modeled after the only other state with an open primary, Washington, where a similar voting plan survived a 2007 Supreme Court challenge.
Voters could choose among all the candidates regardless of party registration and the top two vote-getters would advance to the general election, also without regard to party affiliation.
A visibly reluctant Legislature placed the measure on the ballot in exchange for then-state GOP Sen. Abel Maldonado's tiebreaking vote in favor of the 2009 state budget.
In a rare bipartisan accord, the Democratic and Republican parties unequivocally oppose the measure as a massive historical shift from the way it selects its nominees. California voters in 1996 passed an open primary system but the U.S. Supreme Court deemed it unconstitutional as a violation of a person's right to associate. Voters adopted the current primary system in 2004.
Minority parties also vociferously object; their candidates would only under extraordinary circumstances advance to the general election under the open primary. It would be almost impossible for underfunded and unknown third-party candidates to garner enough votes to push them into the top two slots.
The chief conclusions of the 113-page study by the Los Angeles-based nonpartisan policy group support proponents' arguments that an open primary could boost the chances of moderate candidates, ease the increasingly ideologically polarized political climate and hike participation of nonpartisan, or decline-to-state, voters.
The James Irvine Foundation and California Forward helped pay for the study, released Thursday, which involved the analysis of voter registration data, turnout and primary election results.
Among its major findings:
Decline-to-state voters comprise a fifth of the state's electorate but they fail to vote in large percentages in the state's party primary system even though the parties permit it, the report found.
Only 14 percent of the 2008 primary election turnout was from nonpartisan voters, and when they did vote, three-quarters requested Democratic Party ballots.
On the other side of the aisle, the report authors agree that passage of Prop. 14 could trigger longer and more expensive campaigns.
Candidates in an open primary would seek to influence a far larger spectrum of voters in the primary election rather than just those from their parties.
The top two vote-getters could also face two costly campaigns rather than one. Under the existing system, the winning primary candidates in districts that heavily favor one party rarely face serious general election challengers.
Lisa Vorderbrueggen covers politics. Contact her at 925-945-4773 or www.ibabuzz.com/politics.
Download the full report, "Open Primaries and Top Two Elections: Prop. 14 on the California's June 2010 Ballot," by the Center for Governmental Studies, at www.cgs.org.