By Erica L. Clark
In 2010 California passed Proposition 14 (Top Two Primaries Act), an initiative expected to increase Independent Party participation by changing the structure of primary elections to discourage partisanship and deadlocks. Though other states, like Louisiana, have relied on a similar system, as Sam Robinson notes, the system is not without controversy. The new “open primary” system allows candidates to omit their party affiliation from the ballots and selects the top two candidates with the highest number of votes, irrespective of their affiliation, to participate in the general elections. While opponents of Proposition 14 believed this would restrict voters’ choice, proponents were hopeful that the measure represented a major step toward creating a more moderate state government less stifled by strictly partisan deadlocks. The question is: Since the act took effect in the 2012 primaries, will it produce a more moderate result for California state offices in the general election?
Proposition 14 amended the California State Constitution with regard to voting and election procedures for state and congressional elective offices. Under the new system, a candidate may have their political party preference, or lack thereof, listed on the ballot. Additionally, while the new statute does not prohibit political parties from endorsing, supporting, or opposing any candidate, it does prohibit them from nominating a candidate for state or congressional office to participate in the primary elections. Further, new provisions insist political parties do not have the right to have their candidates represented in the general elections; rather, under the Top Two Primaries Act, the two candidates with the highest votes in the primaries advance to participate in general elections. This makes it possible for voters to have a choice of two members of the same party (e.g. two Democrats or two Independents).
Supporters of the proposition, like former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, believed the changes to the election process would result in the election of more moderate politicians, fewer partisan deadlocks, and fewer superfluous run-off elections.
Many dissenters, however, remained skeptical often citing Louisiana’s track record with prominent incumbent re-election, political corruption, and strong political affiliation among primary candidates. Implementing the open primary in California, they felt, would not create more moderate government but would instead limit voter choice and underrepresent minority parties in general elections. Notable opponents are former gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman and former independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader.
Now that California implemented and enforced the new election policies in the 2012 primary elections, did the emerging candidates reflect a more moderate outcome? With a significant turnout of independent candidates heading to the general election in November, some would argue yes. Under the new system, run-off elections will occur in November and while some districts must choose between two candidates of the same party, many districts have a choice between parties. Four independent candidates face Democrat or Republican candidates for congressional office in November and one independent candidate for the state assembly runs for district 28. Chad Walsh is running as an independent against Democrat Paul Fong in District 28 and the primary votes reflect a potentially close election for November. Walsh, as part of his independent platform, seeks to depoliticize state government should he be elected and collaborate to reach more favorable outcomes for Californians in his district. While it’s unclear whether voters will sway toward the independent candidates, there was significantly higher voter turnout among independent voters, just as open primary supporters anticipated.
Though still in infancy, new open primary election policy changes in California seem to hold promise for breaking traditional binary convention and pushing the boundaries of political bipartisanship. This may make the California voter wonder what new legislative possibilities might emerge when “the middle” is invited to the table.
Erica Clark is a first-year law student at William & Mary.