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Thursday, Jul 24, 2014
Commentary

Opening up elections with open primaries


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Fed up with a lack of competition in "safe" legislative districts, California voters ditched the state's conventional primary system two years ago and implemented the "Top Two Open Primary."

The initiative was called Proposition 14. Here's how it works: Candidates choose whether to associate themselves with a particular party or run unaffiliated. All candidates are then listed on the same ballot, and every voter, regardless of party affiliation (or lack thereof), is eligible to vote in the primary. The top two vote-getters - again, regardless of party - then advance to the general election.

How's it going so far?

Quite well, according to Dan Howle, chairman of the Independent Voter Project, author of the open-primary measure.

"We've pretty much accomplished everything that we wanted to do," he told me. "We had three primary objectives: One was to give every voter the right to vote for any candidate they choose, and the second was to give any voter equal access to the ballot. Political parties in California had an advantage prior to Prop 14, and so the third thing was ... to make elections competitive, and we've really done that."

The ballot measure passed with the support of then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

"I was sick and tired of Republicans and Democrats getting stuck in their own ideologies and being so far apart that they were unable to meet in the middle," he told me. "I promised the people of California that I would fight for them. It took years to do, due to the great amount of resistance from both parties, but we eventually won and now both systems are in place, and I think it's truly terrific."

When I asked Howle to cite evidence of success, he pointed to the 15th and 30th Congressional Districts.

The 30th is in the San Fernando Valley, where, in 2012, Congressmen Howard Berman and Brad Sherman faced each other after redistricting. Because of Top Two, these two liberal Democrats vied in the general election for a seat gerrymandered for a Democrat. Because they had to face the electorate at large, and not just fellow Democrats in a party primary, according to Howle, each was forced to "spend a great deal of time, money, and effort touting their ability to work with Republicans. They had to reach out to Republicans in order to be competitive, and that's what we were trying to do when we wrote the Top Two Open Primary: Make politicians accountable to everybody in their districts."

Pete Stark was a political casualty in the San Francisco area's 15th District as a result of an open primary. Stark had served in Congress for 40 years, until he faced Eric Swalwell, a 36-year-old prosecutor. These two Democrats were the top two in the general election, and Swalwell won by appealing to a broader range of voters.

"Stark hadn't had a competitive election in 30 years, and he was defeated by a young Democrat because this Democrat appealed to the broad range of voters in that district and had the opportunity to compete," Howle told me. "Prior to the Top Two Open Primary, 98 percent of all elections in California were decided in the primary election, and there were virtually no competitive elections."

Thus far, it sounds like the antidote to the problem Nate Silver has written about in the FiveThirtyEight blog: In 1992, there were 103 competitive congressional districts in the country; today there are 35. If you are nominated by the dominant political party in one of those districts, you are virtually assured of being elected because of the way the lines have been drawn.

California is addressing gerrymandering, too. The Golden State has sought to remove politicians from the redistricting process with the creation of the Citizens Redistricting Commission, another initiative created on Schwarzenegger's watch.

"When we did redistricting reform we were told right off the top from both parties not to go there," he told me. "Both Democrats and Republicans said they would attack me and do everything they could to not change gerrymandering. ... (T)hey insisted I would be unable to undo it. Gerrymandering has been around for entirely too long, and that's the way politicians fix the elections. It's how Democrats and Republicans get together and draw the district lines so they maintain safe seats."

He continued: "What I insisted on doing is having ordinary folks that are smart draw the district lines and take the power away from the politicians. And you know what? They spent millions and millions of dollars against it and we lost five times. "But we were relentless. We never gave up and we took the risk again, and on the sixth time, thanks to our endurance and ability to stay in office, we raised enough money and won. ... It will not change everything 100 percent; however, it will definitely make a difference. It will make it more difficult for politicians to keep the seats that they previously were locked into."

Howle agrees. He says the dual effects of the open primary and redistricting commission represent a significant attempt to change the status quo.

"I want to emphasize that we were not and are not anti-political party," he told me. "There is a place for political parties in this process. What we were all about is voters' rights. The premise was very simple: Every voter ought to have the chance to vote for any candidate they choose. It's that simple."

California down. Forty-nine to go.

Michael Smerconish writes for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may contact him via www.smerconish.com.

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