California's move to 'top two' primaries: An end to political parties?

California voters approved Prop. 14 on Tuesday, allowing the top two candidates in a primary to advance to the general election -- regardless of party. Backers say it will produce moderate elected officials. Perhaps. But it may also move the state away from the party system.

Californians who voted Tuesday on the Proposition 14 ballot measure were offered this explanation for its purpose: “It’s time to end the bickering and gridlock and fix the system.”

No wonder voters strongly backed it.

The state’s government dysfunction is infamous: intense partisanship, budgetary impasse, high debt, and slipping education.

The initiative’s backers promise to produce a new class of moderate politicians with this new type of primary election that puts candidates from all parties on the same ballot. Starting in 2011, voters will be able to choose any candidate – regardless of the voter’s party or the candidate’s. The top two vote-getters would then go on to the general election.

The hope is that competitors in this kind of primary would run what is in effect a general election campaign. That means – presumably – that they would widen their appeal and steer away from catering to hard-core voters of their parties, as is often done now in a conventional primary.

Ballot measures, though, often produce unintended consequences. One possible effect for Prop. 14 is far more costly primary campaigns with wealthy candidates rising to the top. Another is that candidates from minor parties may not be able to cross the top-two threshold and be placed on the ballot for the general election.

Writ large, the measure moves the state away from party-driven politics and puts the emphasis on individual candidates. This is why the political establishment spurns it. Under this proposition, the top two winners could be of the same party who then go head-to-head in a general election.

The initiative’s backers modeled Prop. 14 after a similar one in Washington State that was passed in 2004 – one that has the US Supreme Court’s blessing. In 2008, the court found that system did not violate a political party’s First Amendment right of association – principally, to nominate its own candidates. The reason is that the top-two system did not amount to a nomination process, the court found.

In Washington, candidates now put their own self-designated party on the ballot, regardless of whether the party approves. (In California, candidates need not list any party affiliation.) The high court determined that what was really happening in Washington was a winnowing of a field of candidates, and not a party-nominating process. No political party was seeing its association rights violated, because it was not being forced to accept nonmembers’ determination of its nominees.

Parties in California or Washington that want to regain control of the nomination process might end up opting out of the top-two system. Presumably, they could choose the Iowa caucus model, for instance, or return to nominating conventions (incumbent Sen. Bob Bennett was ousted from his candidacy at the GOP convention in Utah last month).

But complaints arise that these old-fashioned methods of choosing party nominees are “undemocratic.” As Ron Nehring, the chairman of the California Republican Party warned: “In the future this decision will be made by no more than a few thousand and, in most cases, a few dozen.”

In truth, no one is really sure what the consequences of Prop. 14 will be. But as it’s structured now, the two-top system de-emphasizes the party. What Californians have just voted for is not really a political primary at all – but a two-step process in a general election.

Given the state’s stalemated politics – and this era of more independent voters – anything at this point might help to provide new directions.

Prop. 14 is worth a try, but with an eye to either improving it or dropping it if doesn’t work.

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