Open Primaries: We Need a Return to Voting By Party Members
Last week I got my sample ballot for the upcoming California primary and opened the booklet to the page for the United States Senate candidates.
I was almost blinded by the array of twenty-four candidates listed randomly in one huge roster. It was not even alphabetical, but rather a helter skelter assortment of names, next to each of which was their party preference. Of the twenty-four there were fourteen Republicans, six Democrats, two Peace and Freedom and one each for American Independent and Libertarian.
Remembering that this was the year long-time incumbent Dianne Feinstein was running for re-election, I was hard pressed to find her in the ensuing clutter. Nor was it easier to find her opponents, none of whom I had ever heard of.
Amidst the chaos it was also difficult to locate the Republicans who had any sort of a chance. Actually even after Googling many of the names it didn't seem that any of them did, unless, as could well be the case, one might not easily find Dianne Feinstein's name in the muddle.
The problems I have are at least twofold.
First, why has this process been effected in the first place? Wasn't the purpose of political primaries to take the process out of the hands of big city bosses and to allow the citizenry of each state to choose their nominees? And in particular to put the choice in the hands of people who espouse a political point of view, hence their having registered in a specific political party in the first place?
There have been various foolhardy attempts to change this system, some of which have been employed by several states, most notably Louisiana and Washington state. California itself has tried a number of schemes, one of which, the blanket primary system, was enacted with Proposition 198 in 1996. This method allowed voters of either party to vote for candidates for governor of one party and then to switch gears and nominate someone from the other party for a different office, let's say, U.S. Senator. In short order, the process was declared unconstitutional in 2000 by the United States Supreme Court in California Democratic Party v. Jones.
Because of this, Washington state, whose own blanket primary system was thus disallowed, enacted what was termed a non-partisan blanket primary, the essence of which was passed by California voters via Proposition 14 in 2010.
In this instance, all the candidates for every partisan office except for president and party central committees are listed together on the ballots issued to everyone, regardless of party affiliation, though with each candidate's party mentioned right beside their name. Then, the top two candidates, no matter what their party is, advance to the general election. In this manner, fewer candidates of one party might well reap the most votes causing two people of a similar political persuasion to ultimately vie for the office, giving voters scant choice in the general election.
Imagine a situation where two liberals contest for a seat or two right-wing conservatives do the same? Not to mention the fact that, unlike non-partisan political contests in many states, such as for mayor and the city council, if the top candidate in a primary gets more than fifty percent of the vote there would still be a presumably unnecessary run-off in the general election. Conversely, if a candidate for mayor of Los Angeles gets over half the votes in the primary he/she is elected right then and there.
This is a preposterous system, made more so by the confusion of a ballot with multiple names and their parties strewn about in a haphazard way. Many of you probably remember the famous "butterfly" ballot in Palm Beach County, Florida during the 2000 General Election. Thousands of baffled voters, many of them elderly, voted for Pat Buchanan rather than Al Gore, thus tipping the close election, absent the recount desired by the Florida Supreme Court and denied by a 5-4 Supreme Court vote, to George W. Bush. Even Buchanan admitted that the communities of retired Jewish voters were unlikely to have voted for him in such large numbers.
So, here we are in California with a primary system that has done away with citizens of one political persuasion choosing their major candidates in important elections. In so doing it creates a ballot that, in certain circumstances, might well prevent a favored candidate from getting all the votes he/she might have garnered simply because of the difficulty plowing through all the names and the mélange of political parties in one list.
It's preposterous and should be repealed. Candidates should be nominated by people who are affiliated with the same party. If their candidate doesn't get nominated they can always switch sides in the general election. However, this effective destruction of a democratic reform instituted many years ago to put nominations into the hands of people who have signed on for the cause is a sham and, worse, is bound to turn people off from the process.
Michael Russnow's website is ramproductionsinternational.com