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CA Independent Voter Project-sponsored open primary initiative wins big

by Greg Lucas, published

With record low turnout but strong anti-incumbent attitudes, voters dramatically changed the way California elects state officeholders by approving Proposition 14, which creates a non-partisan primary where the top two vote-getters advance to a November run-off.

The ballot measure, originally drafted and submitted by the California Independent Voter Project, won by a 54.2 percent to 45.8 percent margin.  “Voters agree that the status quo is unacceptable. The decisions facing California today require a broad outlook and candidates who understand the connection between business-friendly policies, jobs and a strong economy,” said Allan Zaremberg, the president of the California Chamber of Commerce, a major backer of the initiative.

“This sends a clear message that Californians are tired of partisan gridlock and dysfunction and want a system where representatives put what's best for California ahead of extreme partisan doctrine,” Governor Schwarzenegger said in a statement.  “Coupled with redistricting, Proposition 14 will change the political landscape in California - finally giving voters the power to truly hold politicians accountable."

Proposition 14’s successful campaign was spearheaded by CAIVP,  which also helped create the California Independent Voter Network (CAIVN). Despite the legislature's expectations last year that low turnout would kill the reform measure, CAIVP conducted a well-coordinated campaign and tapped into intensifying voter discontent over partisan politics and chronically ineffective governance.

Only two of California’s 58 counties voted “no” on the proposition – San Francisco and Orange.  In Orange, whose voters are 43 percent Republican, 32 percent Democratic and 20 percent decline-to-state, Proposition 14 lost by a 51.9 percent to 48.1 percent margin.

San Francisco’s registered Democrats represent 56.6 percent of voters, second only in the state to Alameda County’s 57.5 percent. Proposition 14 was rejected there by 55.2 percent to 44.8 percent. San Francisco’s decline-to-state voters outnumber its GOP voters more than three to one – 29.5 percent to 9.3 percent.

In Los Angeles, the state’s most populous county, the measure won by 51.1 percent to 48.9 percent with 784,275 of the county’s 4.4 million registered voters casting ballots.

The open primaries created by the proposition don’t start until 2012 but, starting January 1, 2011, some of the restrictions making it difficult for decline-to-state voters to run for state office will be lifted.  Both the state Democratic Party and the state Republican Party opposed the measure – the only campaign in the primary election in which they agreed.

Former eBay executive Meg Whitman also bought herself the right to face Democrat Attorney General Jerry Brown in November. Whitman, who spent more than $71 million of her own money, easily beat Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, 64.2 percent to 26.9 percent. Poizner emptied his pockets of nearly $25 million in his campaign.  “I want Californians to dream big again. I want our state to be the very best place in the world to raise a family, grow a business, educate our children and pursue life's ambitions. We can make the Golden State golden again,”

Whitman said in her victory speech.

Of the state’s nearly 17 million registered voters, less than one-fourth – 4.2 million – cast ballots June 8.  Voters, who in recent polls expressed dissatisfaction with both the direction the state and federal government are heading, vented their anger at incumbents, in most cases favoring “outsiders” over “professional politicians.”

Former Hewlett-Packard executive Carly Fiorina who, like Whitman, has no political experience, bested former Rep. Tom Campbell and Assemblyman Chuck DeVore of Irvine in the GOP primary, winning the right to challenge Democrat Barbara Boxer, who is seeking a fourth six-year term.  Fiorina won 56.5 percent of the vote, Campbell 21.8 percent and DeVore, 19 percent.

However, on the Democratic side, Chris Kelly, Facebook’s former chief privacy officer, spent nearly $10 million of his own money but could not beat San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris who received 33.1 percent of the vote. Despite Kelly’s spending, he mustered just under 16 percent of the vote.  Assemblyman Albert Torrico of Fremont took nearly 15 percent of the vote, besting his fellow Assembly members Ted Lieu of Torrance and Pedro Nava of Santa Barbara.

Republicans chose Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley as their candidate for Attorney General.

One short-time incumbent, Lieutenant Governor Abel Maldonado, the Santa Maria Republican who agreed to vote for the 2009 budget if the legislature placed Proposition 14 on the ballot, won the GOP primary. He will face San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom in November to keep the job he was appointed to April 27.

Termed-out Democratic Assemblyman Dave Jones of Sacramento will face Brian Fitzgerald, an enforcement attorney at the Department of Insurance for Insurance Commissioner. Fitzgerald beat former Assembly GOP Leader Mike Villines of Fresno by a narrow 50.4 percent to 49.6 percent margin.

The campaigns of Kelly, Whitman and Poizner also had the advantage of being able to draw on large amounts of personal wealth to trumpet their anti-incumbent message.  It’s unclear how effective that will prove in November when far greater numbers of decline-to-state voters participate. There are 3.4 million voters who choose not to affiliate with any party, about 20 percent of the state’s registered voters.  They are younger, less partisan, and may not be as easily swayed by big money campaigns.

“Remember, one-fifth of the voters, the decline-to-staters, couldn't really weigh in in the primary. They are younger, shrewder and less partisan. It remains to be seen if money can buy their love,” said Barbara O’Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at California State University Sacramento.

In the race to succeed Jack O’Connell as state superintendent of public instruction – the only non-partisan statewide office – the three best known candidates were Assemblyman Tom Torlakson, an Antioch Democrat, Sen. Gloria Romero, a Los Angeles Democrat, and Larry Aceves, a retired San Jose-area school district superintendent who appeared on several GOP slate mailers – although without paying for his inclusion.  A crowded 12-person field, no candidate won a majority. Torlakson, with 18 percent of the vote, faces a run-off with Aceves, the top vote getter at 18.8 percent in November.

Despite well-funded “yes” campaigns, voters rejected two ballot measures bankrolled primarily by Pacific Gas & Electric and Mercury General Corporation, a large auto insurance carrier.  The San Francisco-based investor-owned utility spent $46 million in cash and an additional $425,00 in non-monetary contributions to convince voters to approve Proposition 16, which the utility touted as the “Taxpayers Right to Vote Act.”  At a price of $25 for each “yes” vote, the utility still failed, the ballot measure losing by a 52.5 percent to 47.5 percent margin.  Under the proposition, localities that wish to create their own municipal would need a two-thirds vote before they could contract with an electricity provider other than the investor-owned utility that would otherwise serve that local area.

San Francisco and Yolo County have both explored this option. Both are in the Pacific Gas & Electric service area.  A constitutional amendment, the proposition would have required a two-thirds vote of local voters before such a contract, known as a “community choice aggregation” could be entered into. The measure also would have made it harder for publicly owned utilities such as the Sacramento Municipal Utilities District, to compete for such contracts.

While investor-owned utilities such as PG&E can use shareholder money to finance political campaigns, publicly owned utilities can’t. Opponents raised and spent just over $100,000 – 57 times less than what PG&E paid its chief political consultants during the final 13 weeks of the campaign.

Mercury’s  “yes” campaign for Proposition 17 cost $15.6 million. Proposition 17 lost 52.1 percent to 47.9 percent.  The ballot measure would have enacted a change in law the company has long sought legislatively that allows insurers to offer discounts to drivers who maintain continuous coverage – even when they switch insurance companies.  Customers would have been eligible for the discount if their coverage has not lapsed more than 90 days within the past five years – unless the lapse was caused by failing to pay the premium.  Mercury argued the change could save drivers money on their insurance. Opponents said it would cost drivers who allow their insurance to lapse for 91 days or more in surcharges.

Also defeated was Proposition 15, which would have imposed an annual $350 fee on lobbyists, lobbyists' firms and those who employ lobbyists to create funds that would be used to publicly finance the campaigns of candidate for Secretary of State.  The experiment in public financing was to apply only to that one office and would have expired after two election cycles – January 1, 2019.  Voters rejected it 57.5 percent to 42.5 percent.

Other than Proposition 14, the only other ballot measure to win voter approval was Proposition 13, a measure placed on the ballot by the Legislature to prevent buildings strengthened against earthquakes from being reassessed. It won easily – 84.5 percent to 15.5 percent.


*  For more election results, click here.

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