California Votes to Eliminate Party-Based Primaries in Non-Presidential Races

California voted to eliminate party-based primaries in non-presidential races.

June 9, 2010 -- Californians voted Tuesday to eliminate party-based primaries in non-presidential races. The measure, known as Proposition 14, passed by a 54 to 46 percent margin.

California now becomes the second state to adopt a "top-two" primary system. The new system will apply to congressional, statewide and state legislative elections. Washington is the only other state that uses the system.

In the primary round of "top two" voting, all candidates will be included in a single election open to all voters, regardless of party registration. Candidates have the option to declare a party preference or appear on the ballot with no affiliation.

The two candidates with the highest vote totals in the primary will then advance to the general election. Write-in votes will be ignored. The November ballot could thus feature two members of the same party as the only options.

All of California's six ballot-eligible political parties, the state's ACLU groups, and many state labor unions opposed Proposition 14, while business groups, the California AARP, and a majority of the state's major newspapers endorsed the measure.

Proponent groups' fundraising dramatically outpaced that of opponents, with late May numbers from the California Secretary of State's office showing a margin of $4 million to about $200,000.

Voters appeared to accept supporters' contention that the new system will lead to more moderate elected officials and alleviate the gridlock that has characterized the state's politics in recent years. By doing away with party primaries, proponents argued that the initiative would combat the partisan polarization demonstrated in last year's contentious budget debate and benefit candidates willing to reach across party lines.

The most prominent backer of the proposition was California GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. He raised money for the measure and cited the Republican gubernatorial primary between Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner as emblematic of the kind of primary partisanship that would be eliminated under the proposed system.

Proposition 14 is the brainchild of Republican Abel Maldonado, a former state senator who was recently confirmed as the state's new lieutenant governor.

Measure Troubles Both Major and Minor Parties

Proposition 14 is "a huge game changer in California," Maldonado told ABC News last week. "It makes the politicians in Sacramento accountable to the people."

Maldonado joined with Democrats last year to end the state's budget crisis. As part of the compromise deal that secured Maldonado's vote, the legislature voted to put Proposition 14 on the ballot.

Opponents alleged that he demanded the measure for his own political benefit, but Maldonado rejected the claim, saying that he demanded the proposition because "I was not prepared to put new money into a broken system."

The proposition's backers believed the ability of all voters to participate in a single primary will produce general election candidates who better represent the beliefs of the district, producing November contests between two ideologically viable candidates.

"If everybody's going to be the same, why even bother to have the election," countered John Burton, chairman of the California Democratic Party.

He raised the possibility of a fragmented primary electorate resulting in candidates far removed from the ideological center of the district.

"You have nine Democrats running in a highly Democratic district and you have two Republicans running, the two Republicans might end up with more votes than the Democrats," leaving no Democrats on the November ballot in the district.

California's major and minor parties united against Proposition 14, arguing that it will allow candidates to deceive voters by concealing their true party affiliation and limit voter choice by keeping minor party nominees off the general election ballot.

"Just like baseball needs teams, democracy needs political parties in order to work, otherwise you have chaos," California Republican Party chair Ron Nehring told ABC News last week.

Opponents argued that intraparty general elections would leave little ideological contrast, forcing personality-based campaigns and mudslinging. The single-ballot primary, they charged, would strongly favor those candidates with the deepest pockets.

"Literally, it would squeeze voters out of the entire electoral process," said Christina Tobin, chairman of Stoptoptwo.org and a Libertarian candidate for Secretary of State.

Minor parties face particular difficulty in that they will not be recognized for registration and candidate party preference purposes unless they meet a requirement of 100,000 registrants. Several of the state's parties do not have this number of registrants and qualify for the ballot by receiving 2 percent of the general election vote for a statewide race in a non-presidential year. This path to recognition is eliminated under the "top two" system.

'Top Two' Promises More Moderates

Opponents charged that the deal that put the measure on the ballot exemplified shady backroom politics and asserted that a similar primary system in Washington has led to higher percentages of incumbents being reelected and no significant decrease in partisan polarization.

Some people have raised concerns about the lack of a way to replace candidates on the general election ballot.

The two candidates with the highest vote totals in the primaries will appear on the November ballot unless one of them were to die, in which case the third leading primary candidate would take the open spot.

This raises the potential of an election in which a party's candidate wins the primary by a large margin and dies, leaving two candidates from other parties as the only choices on the ballot. In a conventional process, parties can replace their nominees on the ballot in the event of a candidate's death or a major scandal, but this is not an option under Proposition 14.

Opponents also believe the two rounds of the proposed system would lead to a constant campaign environment, with larger campaign expenditures and increased administration costs for local election officials. Supporters denied that administrative costs will be significantly altered and assert that the "top two" system will produce meaningful elections at both stages.

"You're going to end up with campaigns that are honest, from March to November," said Amanda Fulkerson of Californians for an Open Primary.

A study by the nonpartisan Center for Governmental Studies estimated that about one-third of legislative and congressional races in California would result in general elections between candidates of the same political party under the "top two" system. It found that these elections would increase campaign spending, but could give a slight advantage to moderate candidates.

"I think voters are hopeful," said Molly Milligan, a senior fellow at the center and author of the report, "My fear is they might be disappointed when not too much of a change results, because I don't see Prop 14 as a panacea."

In 1996, Californians voted with Proposition 198 to move from traditional closed primaries to a blanket primary, in which all candidates were placed on one primary ballot and the highest vote-getter from each party moved forward to the general election.

The legality of this system was challenged by the state's political parties on the grounds that allowing all voters to choose party nominees violated the parties' right to assembly. In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed and ruled the blanket primary unconstitutional in California Democratic Party v. Jones.

Parties Plan Lawsuit, Caucuses

After the decision, California reverted to a modified closed primary system, in which parties can choose whether independent voters will be allowed to vote in party primaries. Both parties have allowed unaffiliated voters to participate in congressional and state primaries, but Republicans have limited presidential primaries to registered Republicans.

In 2004, voters in Washington State approved Initiative 872, which created a "top two" primary system. Unlike the blanket primary, the "primary" round of voting does not force parties to endorse particular candidates as nominees. Under this rationale, the Washington law was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in early 2008 and the state's first primary under the system held later that year.

Other efforts to create "top two" systems have been less successful. California voters rejected Proposition 62 in 2004, which substantively differed from Proposition 14 only in its continued allowance of general election write-in campaigns and some measures assisting minor parties in qualifying for ballot access. Measure 65, a similar initiative in Oregon, failed in 2007.

With the Proposition 14's passage, the California Republican Party will implement caucus nominations, with Republican state and county committee members from relevant districts voting to determine the party endorsement for the first round of election. This endorsement will not appear on the ballot, but limits access to party support and infrastructure to the nominee.

Chairman Nehring of the California Republican Party lamented that the end of party primaries acts to "reverse an important Progressive era reform which put the power of nominating candidates into the hands of rank and file the voters."

Previously, Republican county committees were not allowed to endorse candidates in Republican primaries. California Democrats allow primary endorsements if two-thirds of relevant local party committees endorse a candidate.

It is unclear when or if Californians will actually participate in a "top two" primary. Although the system is slated to begin next year under the proposition, legal challenges such as those that delayed implementation in Washington may result in postponement.

Chairman Burton of the California Democratic Party said before the election that it was likely that the parties would file a lawsuit if Proposition 14 passed, in hopes of replicating their Supreme Court victory on Proposition 198.

Proposition 14 is "a huge game changer in California," Maldonado told ABC News last week. "It makes the politicians in Sacramento accountable to the people."

Maldonado joined with Democrats last year to end the state's budget crisis. As part of the compromise deal that secured Maldonado's vote, the legislature voted to put Proposition 14 on the ballot.

Opponents alleged that he demanded the measure for his own political benefit, but Maldonado rejected the claim, saying that he demanded the proposition because "I was not prepared to put new money into a broken system."

The proposition's backers believed the ability of all voters to participate in a single primary will produce general election candidates who better represent the beliefs of the district, producing November contests between two ideologically viable candidates.

"If everybody's going to be the same, why even bother to have the election," countered John Burton, chairman of the California Democratic Party.

He raised the possibility of a fragmented primary electorate resulting in candidates far removed from the ideological center of the district.

"You have nine Democrats running in a highly Democratic district and you have two Republicans running, the two Republicans might end up with more votes than the Democrats," leaving no Democrats on the November ballot in the district.

California's major and minor parties united against Proposition 14, arguing that it will allow candidates to deceive voters by concealing their true party affiliation and limit voter choice by keeping minor party nominees off the general election ballot.

"Just like baseball needs teams, democracy needs political parties in order to work, otherwise you have chaos," California Republican Party chair Ron Nehring told ABC News last week.

Opponents argued that intraparty general elections would leave little ideological contrast, forcing personality-based campaigns and mudslinging. The single-ballot primary, they charged, would strongly favor those candidates with the deepest pockets.

"Literally, it would squeeze voters out of the entire electoral process," said Christina Tobin, chairman of Stoptoptwo.org and a Libertarian candidate for Secretary of State.

Minor parties face particular difficulty in that they will not be recognized for registration and candidate party preference purposes unless they meet a requirement of 100,000 registrants. Several of the state's parties do not have this number of registrants and qualify for the ballot by receiving 2 percent of the general election vote for a statewide race in a non-presidential year. This path to recognition is eliminated under the "top two" system.

'Top Two' Promises More Moderates

Opponents charged that the deal that put the measure on the ballot exemplified shady backroom politics and asserted that a similar primary system in Washington has led to higher percentages of incumbents being reelected and no significant decrease in partisan polarization.

Some people have raised concerns about the lack of a way to replace candidates on the general election ballot.

The two candidates with the highest vote totals in the primaries will appear on the November ballot unless one of them were to die, in which case the third leading primary candidate would take the open spot.

This raises the potential of an election in which a party's candidate wins the primary by a large margin and dies, leaving two candidates from other parties as the only choices on the ballot. In a conventional process, parties can replace their nominees on the ballot in the event of a candidate's death or a major scandal, but this is not an option under Proposition 14.

Opponents also believe the two rounds of the proposed system would lead to a constant campaign environment, with larger campaign expenditures and increased administration costs for local election officials. Supporters denied that administrative costs will be significantly altered and assert that the "top two" system will produce meaningful elections at both stages.

"You're going to end up with campaigns that are honest, from March to November," said Amanda Fulkerson of Californians for an Open Primary.

A study by the nonpartisan Center for Governmental Studies estimated that about one-third of legislative and congressional races in California would result in general elections between candidates of the same political party under the "top two" system. It found that these elections would increase campaign spending, but could give a slight advantage to moderate candidates.

"I think voters are hopeful," said Molly Milligan, a senior fellow at the center and author of the report, "My fear is they might be disappointed when not too much of a change results, because I don't see Prop 14 as a panacea."

In 1996, Californians voted with Proposition 198 to move from traditional closed primaries to a blanket primary, in which all candidates were placed on one primary ballot and the highest vote-getter from each party moved forward to the general election.

The legality of this system was challenged by the state's political parties on the grounds that allowing all voters to choose party nominees violated the parties' right to assembly. In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed and ruled the blanket primary unconstitutional in California Democratic Party v. Jones.

Parties Plan Lawsuit, Caucuses

After the decision, California reverted to a modified closed primary system, in which parties can choose whether independent voters will be allowed to vote in party primaries. Both parties have allowed unaffiliated voters to participate in congressional and state primaries, but Republicans have limited presidential primaries to registered Republicans.

In 2004, voters in Washington State approved Initiative 872, which created a "top two" primary system. Unlike the blanket primary, the "primary" round of voting does not force parties to endorse particular candidates as nominees. Under this rationale, the Washington law was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in early 2008 and the state's first primary under the system held later that year.

Other efforts to create "top two" systems have been less successful. California voters rejected Proposition 62 in 2004, which substantively differed from Proposition 14 only in its continued allowance of general election write-in campaigns and some measures assisting minor parties in qualifying for ballot access. Measure 65, a similar initiative in Oregon, failed in 2007.

With the Proposition 14's passage, the California Republican Party will implement caucus nominations, with Republican state and county committee members from relevant districts voting to determine the party endorsement for the first round of election. This endorsement will not appear on the ballot, but limits access to party support and infrastructure to the nominee.

Chairman Nehring of the California Republican Party lamented that the end of party primaries acts to "reverse an important Progressive era reform which put the power of nominating candidates into the hands of rank and file the voters."

Previously, Republican county committees were not allowed to endorse candidates in Republican primaries. California Democrats allow primary endorsements if two-thirds of relevant local party committees endorse a candidate.

It is unclear when or if Californians will actually participate in a "top two" primary. Although the system is slated to begin next year under the proposition, legal challenges such as those that delayed implementation in Washington may result in postponement.

Chairman Burton of the California Democratic Party said before the election that it was likely that the parties would file a lawsuit if Proposition 14 passed, in hopes of replicating their Supreme Court victory on Proposition 198.

Some people have raised concerns about the lack of a way to replace candidates on the general election ballot.

The two candidates with the highest vote totals in the primaries will appear on the November ballot unless one of them were to die, in which case the third leading primary candidate would take the open spot.

This raises the potential of an election in which a party's candidate wins the primary by a large margin and dies, leaving two candidates from other parties as the only choices on the ballot. In a conventional process, parties can replace their nominees on the ballot in the event of a candidate's death or a major scandal, but this is not an option under Proposition 14.

Opponents also believe the two rounds of the proposed system would lead to a constant campaign environment, with larger campaign expenditures and increased administration costs for local election officials. Supporters denied that administrative costs will be significantly altered and assert that the "top two" system will produce meaningful elections at both stages.

"You're going to end up with campaigns that are honest, from March to November," said Amanda Fulkerson of Californians for an Open Primary.

A study by the nonpartisan Center for Governmental Studies estimated that about one-third of legislative and congressional races in California would result in general elections between candidates of the same political party under the "top two" system. It found that these elections would increase campaign spending, but could give a slight advantage to moderate candidates.

"I think voters are hopeful," said Molly Milligan, a senior fellow at the center and author of the report, "My fear is they might be disappointed when not too much of a change results, because I don't see Prop 14 as a panacea."

In 1996, Californians voted with Proposition 198 to move from traditional closed primaries to a blanket primary, in which all candidates were placed on one primary ballot and the highest vote-getter from each party moved forward to the general election.

The legality of this system was challenged by the state's political parties on the grounds that allowing all voters to choose party nominees violated the parties' right to assembly. In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed and ruled the blanket primary unconstitutional in California Democratic Party v. Jones.

Parties Plan Lawsuit, Caucuses

After the decision, California reverted to a modified closed primary system, in which parties can choose whether independent voters will be allowed to vote in party primaries. Both parties have allowed unaffiliated voters to participate in congressional and state primaries, but Republicans have limited presidential primaries to registered Republicans.

In 2004, voters in Washington State approved Initiative 872, which created a "top two" primary system. Unlike the blanket primary, the "primary" round of voting does not force parties to endorse particular candidates as nominees. Under this rationale, the Washington law was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in early 2008 and the state's first primary under the system held later that year.

Other efforts to create "top two" systems have been less successful. California voters rejected Proposition 62 in 2004, which substantively differed from Proposition 14 only in its continued allowance of general election write-in campaigns and some measures assisting minor parties in qualifying for ballot access. Measure 65, a similar initiative in Oregon, failed in 2007.

With the Proposition 14's passage, the California Republican Party will implement caucus nominations, with Republican state and county committee members from relevant districts voting to determine the party endorsement for the first round of election. This endorsement will not appear on the ballot, but limits access to party support and infrastructure to the nominee.

Chairman Nehring of the California Republican Party lamented that the end of party primaries acts to "reverse an important Progressive era reform which put the power of nominating candidates into the hands of rank and file the voters."

Previously, Republican county committees were not allowed to endorse candidates in Republican primaries. California Democrats allow primary endorsements if two-thirds of relevant local party committees endorse a candidate.

It is unclear when or if Californians will actually participate in a "top two" primary. Although the system is slated to begin next year under the proposition, legal challenges such as those that delayed implementation in Washington may result in postponement.

Chairman Burton of the California Democratic Party said before the election that it was likely that the parties would file a lawsuit if Proposition 14 passed, in hopes of replicating their Supreme Court victory on Proposition 198.

In 2004, voters in Washington State approved Initiative 872, which created a "top two" primary system. Unlike the blanket primary, the "primary" round of voting does not force parties to endorse particular candidates as nominees. Under this rationale, the Washington law was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in early 2008 and the state's first primary under the system held later that year.

Other efforts to create "top two" systems have been less successful. California voters rejected Proposition 62 in 2004, which substantively differed from Proposition 14 only in its continued allowance of general election write-in campaigns and some measures assisting minor parties in qualifying for ballot access. Measure 65, a similar initiative in Oregon, failed in 2007.

With the Proposition 14's passage, the California Republican Party will implement caucus nominations, with Republican state and county committee members from relevant districts voting to determine the party endorsement for the first round of election. This endorsement will not appear on the ballot, but limits access to party support and infrastructure to the nominee.

Chairman Nehring of the California Republican Party lamented that the end of party primaries acts to "reverse an important Progressive era reform which put the power of nominating candidates into the hands of rank and file the voters."

Previously, Republican county committees were not allowed to endorse candidates in Republican primaries. California Democrats allow primary endorsements if two-thirds of relevant local party committees endorse a candidate.

It is unclear when or if Californians will actually participate in a "top two" primary. Although the system is slated to begin next year under the proposition, legal challenges such as those that delayed implementation in Washington may result in postponement.

Chairman Burton of the California Democratic Party said before the election that it was likely that the parties would file a lawsuit if Proposition 14 passed, in hopes of replicating their Supreme Court victory on Proposition 198.

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