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Will California's nonpartisan primary result in more moderate candidates?

Under the new format, the two candidates for California office receiving the most votes will advance regardless of their party affiliation. Proponents say it will result in less partisanship.

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer / June 4, 2012

Los Angeles

California is set to hold its first nonpartisan primary Tuesday, as analysts across the country look to see whether the new electoral format might encourage more moderate candidates for office and potentially end partisan gridlock.

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Ushered in by the passage of Proposition 14 in June 2010, the new format – known as a "top-two primary" – alters the way that elections will be conducted for all congressional and statewide offices. Voters can cast their ballots in the primary election for any candidate, without regard to the political party of either the candidate or the voter. Candidates can choose whether or not to have their political party affiliation displayed on the ballot.

"Again, California appears poised to lead the nation,” says Villanova political scientist Lara Brown, author of “Jockeying for the American Presidency.” Noting that independents make up a growing share of the American electorate, she says California figured out a way to allow them to vote in their primary elections.

Proponents say that the new format will reduce the polarization of candidates.

“Although it will surely take some time for the electoral institutions and the voters to learn the ins and outs of the top-two selection method … over time, [it] could revolutionize California's politics and usher in a new electoral movement in the country,” Ms. Brown says.

Proposition 14 prohibits political parties from nominating candidates in a primary, although political parties will be allowed to endorse, support, or oppose candidates. The most recent state voter registration indicates that about 21 percent of voters registered with no party preference, while 43 percent are Democrats and 30 percent are Republicans.

Analysts say Tuesday's first test is expected to have very low turnout – for lack of compelling issues to be decided – but that some candidates are already trying to find middle ground. They cite the fact that several Democrats have taken positions angering public unions, traditionally their allies, while a few Republicans have refused to sign a no-tax pledge, a key requisite for the GOP here for years.

In one of the most watched and most expensive primaries in the nation, two veteran congressman, both Democrats, are competing in a newly-drawn district. Since there are two times as many Democrats as Republicans in the San Fernando district of US Reps. Howard Berman and Brad Sherman, both are expected to move on to the November ballot.


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