Proposition 198
Elections: Open Primary

The information below was provided by the California Journal.

Background: California's current primary system dates back to the early part of the 20th century when progressive reformers devised and promoted it to give ordinary citizens and rank-and-file members of political parties a say in the candidates put up for election by their parties. Until that time, those slates of candidates were determined by party bosses and activists at state conventions. At first, the primary featured what was known as a "cross-filing" feature, which allowed candidates to file for a particular office in their own party's primary and in another party's primary as well. Because of the way cross-filing worked, however, a candidate's true party affiliation was not listed on the ballot; thus, voters often did not realize they were nominating a candidate from another party. This was especially helpful for incumbents who often were the most recognizable name on a ballot. Eventually, 70 percent to 80 percent of legislative primaries resulted in one candidate winning both party nominations, with Republicans earning the lion's share of nominations. But since 1959, when cross-filing was abolished via an initiative, California has had a closed primary, where only candidates affiliated with a party may be listed on that party's ballot and only voters registered to that party may vote. That has led, say some activists, to a system that produces extremists on both ends of the political spectrum. These activists want to open up the primary process to allow any voter -- even independents not affiliated with any political party -- the opportunity to cast a ballot in primary elections. Currently, 11 states operate under some form of "open primary." Eight of those states allow voters to choose a political party on Election Day; in California, that choice must be made 29 days before the primary. Three other states have what is known as a "blanket primary" where voters may vote for the candidate of their choice regardless of the candidate's party. In the past, the open primary has been proposed both as an initiative and in the Legislature, but these proposals either died in legislative committee or failed to gain the required number of signatures to be placed on the ballot.

Proposal: Proposition 198 allows all persons who are entitled to vote in primary elections, including those not already affiliated with a specific political party, to vote for any candidate regardless of that candidate's party affiliation. Thus, voters in primary elections would be allowed to vote for candidates across party lines. The measure also provides that county election officials prepare only one ballot for all voters, and candidates for partisan office would be listed randomly on the ballot and not grouped by party. The candidate from each party who receives the most votes for state elective office would become the nominee of that party at the next general election. The only candidates not affected by these procedures are those running for political party offices, such as county central committees. Those elections would continue to be restricted to voters registered to a particular party. The Legislative Analyst's Office has indicated that Proposition 198 would have no fiscal impact on the state and might save some money for counties that would be able to print and prepare fewer ballots.

Arguments for: Proposition 198 is supported by former state Senator Rebecca Morgan (R-Saratoga), former Fair Political Practices Commission Chairman Dan Stanford, Senator Lucy Killea (I-San Diego) and former GOP state Controller Houston Flournoy. They argue that the current closed primary system produces candidates at the ideological extreme who spend more time fighting with each other than addressing the state's most pressing problems. They say an open primary will increase voter participation and force candidates to focus on issues rather than on partisanship. Proposition 198 will allow independent voters, now excluded from primaries, a chance to participate, and also give minority party voters in non-competitive districts a real say in selecting their representatives. They also argue that victorious candidates will have broader bases of support. Finally, they say that political parties in states with open primaries have become stronger and healthier.

Arguments against: Officials of both major political parties oppose Proposition 198, as does former GOP U.S. Senate candidate Bruce Herschensohn and former Democratic Attorney General John Van de Kamp. They argue that primaries have one purpose: for registered voters in each political party to select nominees for the general election. Clubs and private organizations do not allow non-members to vote in their internal elections, and neither should political parties. The open-primary measure, they warn, is an invitation for political mischief and would allow politicians, special interests and political consultants to manipulate the system through the use of sophisticated targeting methods. There is a difference between the parties, opponents note, but Proposition 198 muddies the waters. And rather than increasing voter choice, the measure actually limits it by diminishing the importance of joining a political party free from outside interference.

For additional information please see:

Secretary of State Ballot Pamphlet

Campaign Finance Data from the Secretary of State

Original Legislation

California State Senate Office of Research

California League of Women Voters

Easy Reader Voter Guide

Related News Articles

Campaign Web Sites:

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