US Watches California's Muddled Experiment With Election Reform

During the past five years, California voters have made it clear they want to fundamentally change the way their government works.

In backing three ballot measures - one to put term limits on lawmakers, another to cap campaign spending, and a third to open state primaries to voters of any party - voters hoped to reshape a political system that many saw as gridlocked, exclusionary, and driven by special interests.

Now, as the measures creep through the courts toward implementation, the California experiment offers other states - and lawmakers in Washington - a window on what happens when fed-up voters tackle three major political reforms at once.

For now, the picture is one just short of complete chaos.

In the secretary of state's office, which is responsible for carrying out elections, people put it bluntly. "We don't know who will be able to run for office [in 1998], how much they can raise, from whom they can raise it, or who will be able to vote for them," says department spokesman Alfie Charles.

Despite the uncertainty the propositions have generated, Californians may well be furthest along in grappling with issues that have also grabbed the national stage. Congress hasn't been able to decide how to change federal campaign-finance laws, despite its continuing probes into questionable fund-raising tactics, and voters nationwide say they are alienated by an inside-the-Beltway mentality.

Unintended consequences

In California, some political observers are now saying that the revised system might not accomplish what the voters intended. In short, the state may find itself even more beholden to special interests and their "soft-money" contributions.

Proposition 198, for example, sets up a "blanket" primary, meaning that any voter can choose a candidate from any party, mixing and matching to endorse a list of favorite candidates. California campaigns are already the most costly in the country, and many political experts agree that Prop. 198 will make them more so, as candidates are forced to appeal to voters of all parties just to get past the primary. Yet under Proposition 208 - the one that deals with campaign finance - candidates' abilities to raise money are sharply curtailed.

The bind is like the "Pushme-Pullyou" of the Doctor Doolittle stories, says Morgan Young of the California Institute, a bipartisan, nonprofit think tank in Washington. The mythical llama, with a head at both ends, is "incapable of moving in one coherent direction ... unless led by someone."

Rich guys finish first?

Some observers say this bind will lead to an increasing number of wealthy candidates, who are free to use as much of their own cash as they wish to finance their campaigns. Others say it may increase the influence of well-financed, supposedly independent groups that finance radio and TV spots on behalf of their favored candidates.

Democratic and Republican Party members, meanwhile, argue that blanket primaries would further blur the line between the parties as centrist candidates win out. Many political experts note, however, that Washington State has a similar system and that both parties there are strong.

Currently, two California propositions are in the middle of court challenges. The one that brought in the blanket primary was upheld only two weeks ago, but opponents say an appeal is imminent.

For California politicians, the one certainty is that the blanket primary, if it stands up in court, will not revolutionize the 2000 presidential race. Neither major party allows nominees to be selected through blanket primaries, so the state organizations will have to rely on a caucus or a state convention nominating system.

The next waymark is the June 1998 primary, which includes nominations for a US Senate seat and the governorship. Candidates must file by Feb. 4. "How's it all going to work out? It's impossible to tell," says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political analyst with Claremont Graduate University who is studying the coming primary. "The only certainty is uncertainty."

Golden State's Trio of Reform

* Prop. 140 - Term limits.

Status: Decision pending by US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

* Prop. 198 - Open primary.

Status: Upheld by US district

court; appeal planned.

* Prop. 208 - Campaign-finance reform.

Status: US district court decision pending.

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