Misguided move to the middle

As a believer in limited government, free markets and low taxes, I rarely find myself in agreement with the state’s liberal Democrats, and my libertarian bent sometimes puts me at odds with conservative Republicans, at least when it comes to their approach to law-and-order and social issues.

But both factions – regardless of how often they get things wrong – at least are animated by some consistent belief system. For a top-of-my-head example, Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, R-Irvine, and Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, might be considered “extreme” by their critics, but they both embrace serious political philosophies, are tireless advocates for a set of ideas and worthy opponents and welcome allies. They are, in a nutshell, serious people animated by their particular view of the world.

Ideologically driven legislators – especially those on the left-most fringes of California’s government – often propose things that make my hair stand on end and provide a source of endless commentary. But as wrong as they might be, there’s something really disturbing about rewriting election laws as a way to ensure the election of legislators with a certain belief set.

Yet this is exactly what is happening. To deal with ongoing budget problems in California – the endless deficits, the expanding unfunded retirement liabilities, the dysfunctional Legislature, the crumbling infrastructure, etc. – an influential group of “moderates,” of the Republican and Democratic varieties, want voters next June to approve an initiative that creates a “top-two” open primary system. The goal isn’t to ensure freer, fairer or more boisterous elections, but, instead, to rig the game so that more people who view the world as the initiative’s supporters do win seats in each state elective office and congressional races.

This idea is a bit presumptuous and more than a bit funny when one considers that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sen. Abel Maldonado – the Santa Maria Republican whom Schwarzenegger recently nominated as lieutenant governor in an act that some believe to be a quid pro quo for Maldonado’s tax-raising budget vote – have only made the state’s problems worse by their actions and inactions in office. Their version of milquetoast moderation has shown no signs of directly addressing what ails California – namely, a government that is too big, too powerful and spends too much money. Schwarzenegger, at least, is entertaining, but Maldonado is the prototypical empty-suit legislator who blathers about “giving back” to California and about his immigrant parents, but seems clueless about the details of state governance.

The top-two primary idea is more nonsense that takes valuable time away from dealing with real solutions to increasingly vexing fiscal problems.

Currently, for legislative and congressional and state constitutional races, Californians vote in a primary system. If you are a Republican, you vote for the various Republican choices. The winner from each party faces off with the winners from the other qualifying parties in a general election. Smaller parties (Green, Libertarian, American Independent and Peace & Freedom currently qualify because they have received the requisite 2 percent of the vote in midterm elections) are included on the ballot and, often, in debates, even though their candidates rarely win office. They can sometimes serve as spoilers, which is an honorable role in many instances.

The top-two open primary system would create one primary election “in which any voter may vote … for any candidate for a congressional or state elective office without regard to the political party preference disclosed by the candidate or the voter.” The top-two vote-getters, regardless of party affiliation, would face off in the general election.

Los Angeles Times columnist George Skelton bluntly explains its purpose: “The idea is to force candidates to appeal to a wider spectrum of voters than they now do in party primaries, resulting in the election of more pragmatic moderates.”

In other words, the goal is to elect more people like Maldonado and Schwarzenegger, and fewer people like DeVore and Romero. As Richard Winger, editor of Ballot Access News and a Libertarian Party activist, warns about some of the fine print in the measure: “[T]he proposal, 1) eliminates write-ins at the general election; 2) vastly increases the difficulty for a party to remain ballot-qualified; 3) shuts off all avenues to the November ballot that are later than mid-March of the election year; 4) treats candidates unequally in the June primary by letting some of them list a party preference but not letting others do so.”

The big problem is that a top-two system eliminates third parties from the general election unless one of their candidates improbably gains a top-two spot. It also eliminates competition between the two major parties in the general election because – in California’s gerrymandered one-party districts – the top-two candidates often will be from the same party. The result, as designed, would be candidates with fewer differences of opinion and fewer sharp edges. Again, by design, the top-two system would reduce voter choices, hush up contentious debate and elect more tax-raising, deal-cutting moderates who are amenable to the interest groups and insiders who prefer business as usual. The elimination of write-ins also eliminates one of the few forms of protests that an average voter might have against the prevailing candidates.

State Democratic Party Chairman John Burton told the Los Angeles Times that the system’s elimination of party affiliation eliminates important information for voters and “freezes out third-party candidates.” One of the initiative’s backers wasn’t concerned about that, stating, “These third parties are not really relevant to the process anyway.”

I find them completely relevant (full disclosure: I’m a registered Libertarian). No, I don’t think third parties have much of a shot of winning many offices, but I do want to see a broader debate. One of the reasons California is in such a financial pickle is that there aren’t enough new and innovative ideas or discussions about serious old ideas. The top-two initiative seeks to address that issue by reducing choices even more and making general elections more about personalities than issues.

By the way, the top-two primary is much different from other forms of open primaries. As Winger explains it, the traditional open primary refers to a system “in which each party has its own primary, but there is no registration by party for voters.” That system is dubious enough, but the top-two version goes further in crushing third parties and alternative thinking.

I’ll go back to a point I’ve often made: Californians broadly agree that the state government is dysfunctional. But they don’t agree on how to fix it. Many activists, including liberals and moderate business leaders, believe that the key is to change the rules so that it’s easier to pass budgets and raise taxes. Some propose a state constitutional convention to achieve that end and others advocate open primary systems in order to elect more moderates who will accomplish the same goals. I don’t believe the current choices are good ones, and both major parties are deeply flawed. But I don’t believe that splitting the difference between those parties and eliminating the most thoughtful and ideological candidates will solve anything.

Do you really think a Legislature filled with Maldonados and Schwarzeneggers is the answer? Didn’t think so.

Steven Greenhut is director of the Pacific Research Institute’s journalism center in Sacramento. Write to him at [email protected].

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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