Sunday, June 27, 2004
'Voter Choice' initiative? Orwell, phone home
Columnist, The Orange County Register
Usually, if both major political parties are
in complete agreement on something, then everyone else ought to
Recall the California redistricting plan that
passed with the support of the Democratic and Republican establishment
in 2001. Virtually all the seats in the state Legislature were gerrymandered
to be safe for one party or the other, thereby sparing anyone the
trouble of waging costly and contentious general election campaigns.
California voters were the losers, as they were denied real ideological
choices for Senate and Assembly.
Currently, the Democratic and Republican leaders
are supporting an initiative, SCA 18, which locks the current primary
system into the state Constitution and is a defense against the
so-called Voter Choice initiative promoted by disgruntled "moderates."
SCA 18 has already passed the Legislature by a two-thirds vote,
thus guaranteeing it a spot on the ballot without any involvement
by the governor.
On the surface, this smacks of the same kind
of bipartisan insider deal described above, especially given one
slightly dishonest trick I'll get to later. But rather than look
askance at this proposal, I'd suggest that California voters embrace
SCA 18 and the initiative it will become, as they've never embraced
an initiative before. This time, both party establishments have
SCA 18 is a great idea, and the initiative
it intends to derail, Voter Choice, is a disaster.
The battle is over the nature of elections
in California. Currently, there are primary elections and general
elections. In the primary, Republican voters select the Republican
candidate, and Democratic voters select the Democratic candidate.
Any smaller party that jumps through the necessary paperwork hurdles
can likewise field a candidate. Everyone goes head-to-head in the
general election, arguing over political philosophy or whatever.
It ain't perfect, but voters get to choose among varying candidates
with varying views of the world.
Some "moderates," however, don't like these
rules. They argue that the Republicans usually elect conservatives
and the Democrats usually elect liberals. (Perceptive, huh?) The
resulting party winners are too extreme for their taste. So they
are trying to rig the election rules for the stated purpose of getting
elected more people who think like they think.
Being moderates, they don't always know what
it is they think, but that's another matter.
Under the leadership of former Los Angeles
Mayor Richard Riordan, these moderates have qualified the Voter
Choice initiative for the November ballot. In reality, it will only
Riordan is apparently still embittered by his
stunning gubernatorial loss to Bill Simon in the 2002 Republican
Riordan despised the grass-roots Republicans
who make up the GOP, so he avoided them, insulted them and basically
ran in the primary as if he were running in the general election.
As a result, and also because of the money Gov. Gray Davis cynically
dumped into the GOP primary for ads attacking Riordan, Riordan was
He deserved it, but he doesn't want other candidates
of his mindset to suffer the same sort of defeat.
But his solution is bizarre.
"California is on the verge of adopting a method
of holding political primaries that is found nowhere in America
but Louisiana, a state whose own residents will tell you has a political
culture everyone should think twice about emulating," wrote the
Wall Street Journal's John Fund in a recent column.
In 1996, California voters approved an open
primary system, in which anyone could vote in any party's primary,
regardless of party affiliation. I am a registered Republican; under
open primary rules I could vote in the Democratic primary if I so
The result in heavily Republican Orange County
was the election of two Assembly members who are virtually indistinguishable
from Democrats, given that union activists flooded the GOP primaries.
The U.S. Supreme Court in 2000 threw out that process, arguing sensibly
that parties are private groups that should be able to choose their
The court did, however, approve
a nonpartisan primary format. That's what voters have in Louisiana.
Instead of having a Republican primary and a Democratic primary,
there is a single primary election. All the candidates are listed
on the same slate. It is nonpartisan, although the California initiative
would allow each candidate's party affiliation to be listed.
The top two vote-getters (except in presidential
races) - even if they were of the same political party - would go
on to the general election. The result is, in essence, two general
elections, which would mean that, in the theory favored by the proponents
of Voter Choice, candidates would need always to appeal to the middle.
But it's always hard to guess the results of
electoral gimmicks. Term limits didn't create more citizen-friendly
Legislatures, as planned, nor have campaign spending laws made money
less of an issue in campaigns. In the latter case, the opposite
is true: The very wealthy have even more influence because they
can fund their own elections.
If the moderates are right about the Voter
Choice format, the public will get less of a real debate. In Republican
areas, the likely result will be a general election featuring two
Republicans at the top of the ticket, and vice versa in Democratic
strongholds. California county boards of supervisors elections are
run in a similar way, and in Orange County's Democratic-leaning
first district, the November general election features a race between
two Democrats. Expect more such races if Voter Choice passes.
Under Voter Choice, third parties, which rarely
win but offer important perspectives during any race, would be shut
out entirely. "Third parties hate it," said Shawn Steel, immediate
past chairman of the California Republican Party. "They would not
appear on any ballot in the fall forever more under the Voter Choice
initiative. Instead of having six or seven choices in November,
voters will only have two."
How does less choice and less debate serve
In Louisiana, the result has been extremism
rather than moderation. Gubernatorial elections have featured an
ex-Klansman and a crook.
What has happened there, in a perfect example
of the law of unintended consequences - and could happen here -
is that a large field of mainstream party candidates steals votes
from each other, which then clears the way for a nutcase, who might
eke out a win with a percentage of total votes in the single digits.
Think David Duke, who advanced to the runoff
for Louisiana governor before finally losing to Edwin Edwards, who
subsequently ended up in the federal pen for extortion.
Candidates would no longer have to address
the concerns of grass-roots activists from any party, given that
their influence in a free-for-all election would be much less than
it is in a party primary. Steel calls it "the millionaires' election
reform" because those with big money would have an even bigger advantage
than under the party system.
By contrast, SCA 18 would lock the current
party-primary system into the constitution. The parties are still
hoping to stop Voter Choice from passing, but SCA 18 would serve
as an insurance policy. If both initiatives pass, then the one with
the higher vote count would become law.
To help assure its passage, SCA 18 includes
a second item: mandating that money raised from selling off the
state's surplus property would go to pay off the debt. Courts usually
throw out initiatives that bundle unrelated issues, but Sen. Ross
Johnson, R-Irvine, sponsor of SCA 18, argues that such a rule only
applies to citizen-sponsored initiatives, as opposed to ones proposed
by the Legislature.
I'm willing to excuse that shameless element,
given what's at stake.
California already has enough problems without
enacting a political system that eliminates serious political debate.
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