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Decline to state voters still at the mercy of political parties during primary season

by Adrienne Verrilli, published

Despite the rising number and growing influence of California’s Decline to State voters, the major political parties can still shut out them out of the primaries if they choose. 

Operating on what is known as a modified closed party system, the state's six official political parties - American Independent Party, Democratic Party, Green Party, Libertarian Party, Peace and Freedom Party, and the Republican Party  - determine 135 days prior to the date of the primary for each election cycle whether or not Decline to State voters can participate in their primary. 

In 2008 for example, Decline to State voters were allowed to participate in the Democratic primary, but not the Republican primary.   This year, however, Decline to State voters can participate in both.  The intent appears to be when the political parties believe that Decline to State voters will help their party in the general election, they let them vote in the primary.  If not, they shut them out.  If they do choose to allow Decline to State voters to participate, however, the voter must be approved by the party to participate in the primary and is only eligible to vote in one party’s primary.

How did California this complicated system that dilutes the voice of more than 20 percent of increasingly influential California voters? 

In 1996, California voters approved Proposition 198 that allowed Decline to State voters to vote for any candidate in any parties’ primary elections.  Passage of the ballot was challenged by the California Democratic, Republican, Libertarian, and Peace and Freedom parties as a violation of the First Amendment right to freedom of association.  And, in June of 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court in a 7-2 vote essentially agreed and overturned Proposition 198.

And back in January 2001, the California legislature adopted the current modified closed system that the state uses today.


So where does California go from here? 

On the June ballot, voters will be asked to vote on the Top Two Open Primary initiative known as Proposition 14, which would require that candidates run in a single primary open to all registered voters, with the top two vote-getters meeting in a runoff.  If approved, the law would take effect in 2012. 

While Decline to State voters tend to support the measure, critics claim that it has been tried in other states without much success, and actually reduces the choice of candidates, particularly hurting third-party candidates. Critics feel a more traditional open-primary system in California would better ensure that the 1 in 5 California voters have a say in the state’s future.

Proponents of the Top Two Open Primary, however, claim that Proposition 14 will be the catalyst that shakes up California's broken political system, challenges the entrenched parties, and leads to candidates that are forced to appeal to a broader spectrum of voters.

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