Nonpartisan Open Primary: Leveling The Playing Field

In June 2010, California voters changed the election system in California by approving Proposition 14 (“Prop 14”), to instate a non-Partisan open primary system. The objective of Prop 14 was to produce more competitive elections and to give independent voters and other non-majority-party voters a say in the election. According to longtime Republican strategist, Allan Hoffenblum, it would reduce “meaningless runoffs.”

California tried to implement a ‘blanket primary’ by way of referendum in 1996. The law allowed voters, regardless of political party, to vote in the partisan primary election of any party. The Sumpreme Court held that the system was unconstitutional in California Democratic Party v. Jones, 530 U.S. 567 (2000). Prop 14, however, was modeled after Washington State’s Top Two Open Primary system. The system has been held constitutional “on its face” by the Supreme Court in Washington State Grange v. Washington State Republican Party, 552 U.S. 442 (2008).

The polarization that is fostered by low primary election voter turnout is reduced by Prop 14. The Top Two Open Primary “would force candidates to face all voters, including independents, in both the primary and the general elections.” According to IVN, this means that, in most communities, “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.” Under this system, the two candidates with the highest and second highest vote totals in the primary election move on to the general election, ensuring that “elections are decided in the November general election when the highest numbers of people vote.”

All six qualified parties in California opposed Proposition 14. Both the California Republican Party and Libertarian Party candidate for Secretary of State Christina Tobin funded dedicated websites in opposition to Prop 14:  www.stopprop14.com and www.stoptoptwo.org. It is worth noting that IVN.us, promoters of the Open Primary, published several articles written by Proposition 14 opponents Christina Tobin and advocacy partner of long-time ballot access lawyer Richard Winger.

Ironically, then Republican Party Chairman Ron Nehring said Proposition 14 would put the selection of nominees in the hands of party bosses, instead of the voters (because bosses would choose who to endorse). Nehring did not point out that absent Proposition 14, the parties have always issued endorsements in partisan primaries.

Effect of Prop 14 – The non-Partisan Open Primary Initiative

Through a series of amendments to the Elections Code, Prop 14 addressed a number of disparities that disproportionately burden Independent voters and candidates. It has created a “voter nominated primary election” system for most partisan offices that are elected by statewide election. The proposition did not affect the partisan presidential primary election, in which parties may still choose to exclude non-member voters.

Under the new Prop 14 system, parties no longer nominate candidates for the general election. Further, parties are no longer guaranteed to have a candidate advance to the general election. Rather, all candidates for office appear on one primary ballot, and voters cast a ballot for any of those individuals, regardless of party affiliation of either the voter or the candidate. The two candidates for each office who garner the highest vote totals advancing to the general election. This is similar to how Californians currently elect school boards, city councils, and county boards of supervisors, and how many governments conduct local non-partisan elections.

Of particular note, Prop 14 eliminated the requirement that candidates not be affiliated with a party within 13 months prior to the election. Prop 14 also reduced the signature barriers for independent candidates by subjecting them to the same nominating signature requirements that currently apply to partisan candidates. Although candidates may express a party preference, the party does not nominate them. As a result, party nominees are no longer guaranteed a spot on the general election ballot. Moreover, it is possible that both candidates may express the same party preference for the general election run-off.

Political parties can still endorse candidates and give candidates financial and organizational support. Prop 14 did not affect the current partisan primary elections for President, or for party committee offices. However, Prop 14 does enable greater dialogue in the primary portion of each campaign, because it shifts the dialogue of the campaign at an early point in the process. Rather than campaigns that focus on partisan-based issues that appeal to the small portion of the electorate that actually votes in partisan election, candidates are incentivized to appeal to a broader base of voters, across partisan lines.

Proposition 14 and the Implications on Voter Turnout

The historically low voter participation among non-partisan voters should be contrasted with the 2010 primary election in which Proposition 14 was on the ballot. In that election, the Independent Voter Project, among other organizations, conducted voter education programs to inform Independent Voters that there was a proposition on the ballot that would affect the way they participated in the process. As a consequence, there was a 90% increase in Independent voter participation over the previous non-presidential primary election of 2006, an increase of over 400,000 voters.

While political consultants and the media in general often attribute Independents’ general lack of participation to apathy or disengagement, the unprecedented increase in non-partisan voter turnout in 2010 proves that independent voters are motivated to participate in the process when they have an opportunity to give a ‘meaningful vote.’

With the first nonpartisan primary election right around the corner, independent Californians’ will have an opportunity to challenge the general consensus regarding their desire to participate.