June 4, 2010 -- The June 8 primary election in California could be the last of its kind, as a ballot initiative seeks to dramatically change the electoral process, opening the possibility of general election contests limited to two members of the same party.
Proposition 14 would replace party primaries with a "top-two" election structure for congressional, statewide and state legislative elections. All candidates would be included in a single primary election open to all voters, regardless of party registration. Candidates would 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 would then advance to a general election. Write-in votes would be ignored. The November ballot thus could feature two members of the same party as the only options.
As the election approaches, all of California's six ballot-eligible political parties, the state's ACLU groups, and many state labor unions have lined up against Proposition 14, while business groups, the California AARP, and a majority of the state's major newspapers have endorsed the measure.
The most prominent backer of the proposition is Republican California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. He has raised money for the measure and cites the current Republican gubernatorial primary between Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner as emblematic of the type of primary partisanship that would be eliminated under the proposed system.
Supporters believe the initiative would lead to more moderate elected officials and alleviate the gridlock that has characterized the state's politics in recent years.
Proposition 14 is the brainchild of Republican Abel Maldonado, a former state senator who recently was confirmed as the state's new lieutenant governor.
Proposition 14 is "a huge game changer in California," Maldonado told ABC News. "It makes the politicians in Sacramento accountable to the people."
Last year, Maldonado joined with Democrats 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 allege Maldonado demanded the measure for his own political benefit.
"Maldonado wants it to pass because it will help him to get reelected in the future. ... It's his ego," said Christina Tobin, chairman of Stoptoptwo.org and a Libertarian candidate for secretary of state.
Maldonado rejected the claim and said he demanded the proposition because, "I was not prepared to put new money into a broken system."
By doing away with party primaries, proponents argue the initiative would combat the partisan polarization demonstrated in the budget debate and benefit candidates willing to reach across party lines.
A poll released May 19 by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California found strong support for the proposition, with 60 percent of voters in favor, 27 percent opposed, and 13 percent undecided.
Proponent groups' fundraising dramatically has outpaced that of opponents, with late May numbers from the California secretary of state's office showing a margin of approximately $ 4 million to approximately $200,000.
Similar Measure Failed in 2004
Opponents claim the proposition actually would reduce voter choices, with only two candidates in the general election. They assert that intraparty general elections would leave little ideological contrast, forcing personality-based campaigns and mudslinging. The single ballot primary, they allege, would strongly favor those candidates with the deepest pockets.
"Literally, it would squeeze voters out of the entire electoral process," Tobin said.
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 the 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.
Following 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 that rationale, the Washington law was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in early 2008 and the state's first primary under the system was 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.
California's major and minor parties have 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 of the general election ballot.
"Just like baseball needs teams, democracy needs political parties in order to work. Otherwise you have chaos," California Republican Party chairman Ron Nehring told ABC News.
Minor parties face additional 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. That path to recognition would be eliminated by the "top two" system.
Supporters Believe Moderate Candidates Would Gain Advantage
Those against the proposition allege that the deal that put the measure on the ballot exemplifies shady backroom politics and assert that the similar primary systems in Washington and Louisiana have led to higher percentages of incumbents being reelected and no significant decrease in partisan polarization.
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 deny that administrative costs will be significantly altered and assert that the "top two" system would 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.
They believe the ability of all voters to participate in a single primary will produce general election candidates that 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.
"[If] 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.
A study by the nonpartisan Center for Governmental Studies estimated that approximately 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 those 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."
If the measure passes, 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 would not appear on the ballot, but would limit access to party support and infrastructure to the nominee.
Nehring lamented that the end of party primaries "would reverse an important progressive-era reform which put the power of nominating candidates into the hands of rank-and-file the voters."
Currently, Republican county committees are not allowed to endorse candidates in Republican primaries. California Democrats currently allow primary endorsements if two-thirds of relevant local party committees endorse a candidate.
Death or Scandal Could Trouble System
Some have raised concerns over the lack of a way to replace candidates on the general election ballot under the proposed system. The two candidates with the highest vote totals in the primaries would 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.
That 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. Currently, parties can replace their nominees on the ballot in the event of a candidate's death or a major scandal. This would not be an option if Proposition 14 passes.
Maldonado is confident the voters will approve the measure on Tuesday, as he believes they are "tired of politicians more worried about growing parties than growing California's economies."
Burton said that it was likely that the parties would file a lawsuit if Proposition 14 passes, in hopes of replicating their Supreme Court victory on Proposition 198.