Open Primary Facts
The Independent Voter Project, a sister organization of the Foundation for Independent Voter Education (FIVE), is most well-known for authoring California’s Proposition 14, the “Top-Two Open Primary Initiative,” which was passed decisively by the voters in the June 2010 primary election. The open primary created a single ballot primary system whereby all voters can vote for any candidate, regardless of party affiliation.
This initiative marks a new milestone in voting rights in California. The U.S. political system has been dominated by the two major parties in such a way that the rights of voters who do not belong to those two parties or any of the minor parties, do not have the ability to choose candidates in the primary elections held every other June.
Open Primary’s Role in Breaking the Partisan Impasse
IVP believes the establishment of the Open Primary in California, and ultimately in other states, is critical to breaking the impasse in decision making fostered by the current partisan electoral process. An Open Primary is the benchmark that allows independent voters and candidates to make a difference in the political system.
The Top Two Open Primary’s stated goal was to produce more competitive general elections—the elections when most people vote. More than ninety percent of legislative and congressional elections were deemed “non-competitive” under the old system. This meant that non-Republican voters living in “safe” Republican districts were permanently disenfranchised as were non-Democratic voters living in “safe” Democratic districts. The Top Two Open Primary forces candidates to face all voters, including independents, in both the primary and the general elections. In most communities, this means that candidates and elected officials will have to answer to, and appeal to, a broader electorate rather than to the more narrow interests that can dominate low turnout primaries.
2012 was be the first time California voters were able to experience the new Open Primary system. In addition, California’s electoral district boundaries were redrawn in 2010 under new rules by a commission rather than by the legislature for the first time in 30 years. The confluence of these two events has the potential to made the 2012 primary a watershed election year in California.
The Barriers to Independent Voters that Precipitated the Open Primary Act
The Open Primary Act was precipitated by the growth of registration in decline-to-state (independent) voters and institutional barriers in the California Elections Code that denied ballot access to independent candidates, while disenfranchised independent voters and major-party voters who lived in districts that were “safe” for the other major party.
These barriers also deprived independent voters of the option to vote for candidates in primary elections, and they limited electoral choice for all voters. The following describes some of the barriers emposed by California’s ballot access laws that were addressed by the Open Primary Act.
Growth in Independent Voter Registration
Minority voters and younger voters, in particular, are responsible for the growth in independent voters, for example:
• Between 1978 and 2009, Latino independent voters increased from 5% to 21% of all independent registration.
• Asian or “other” voters increased from 5% to 16%.
• Approximately 25% of all registered independent voters fall in the 18 to 29 age group and 60% of all independent voters are under age 50.
• In a number of districts, independent voter registration exceeded that of a major party.
Despite all of the above, independent voters did not have equal access as candidates or voters.
Number of nominating signatures required before the Open Primary
There was previously a strong disparity between the number of signatures that partisan candidates and independent candidates were required to collect. For example, statewide offices required independent candidates to obtain 173,041 signatures in 60 days, an average of 2,884 per day. Partisan candidates only needed between 65 and 100 signatures and had 25 days to collect them, an average of between 2.6 and 4 per day. Even independent candidates for the Assembly had to collect between 3,184 and 9,240 signatures in 60 days, and average of between 53 and 154 per day. The net effect of the number of signatures required for independent candidates put them at a disadvantage.
Period and Cost to Collect Signatures before Open Primary
The period when signatures could be collected and the opportunities to collect them also created inequities between partisan candidates and independent candidates. Independent candidates had 60 days to collect signatures, but couldn’t begin until one day before the primary. Partisan candidates only had 25 days, but their collection period began in early February, giving partisan candidates a lead of many months to campaign. The independent candidate had to wait until long after the primary to begin campaigning. In addition the cost of collecting signatures created an initial financial barrier for independent candidates.
Access to Voters and Voter Lists
Unlike partisan candidates, independent candidates did not have access to lists of registered voters, caucuses or state conventions, and had to identify voters on their own. A voter could only sign one nominating petition per election per office, creating an ever-shrinking pool of potential signatories for the independent candidate who had to collect thousands of signatures. Only California residents were allowed to gather signatures, and the independent candidate was restricted from having an affiliation with a political party during the thirteen-month period prior to the general election. The partisan candidate also had an affiliation restriction, although slightly shorter at 12 months, but he or she only needed between 65 and 100 signatures, so none of the signature collection burdens of the independent candidate applied to them.