California’s new primary system expected to change political landscape

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A voter fills out her ballot at a polling place at a fire station June 8, 2010 in Oakland, California. California voters are heading to the polls to vote in the primary elections for governor, U.S. senate and other statewide and local races.

California just held the last primary in which Democrats voted only for Democrats and Republicans only for Republicans. In two years, we switch to the “top-two primary,” which will let you vote in any party primary you want — and change the political landscape.

In an top-two primary, any registered voter can vote for any candidate running. The top two vote getters then compete in the general election.

“The Republican Party and the Democratic Party despise this.” Schwarzenegger said as he took a victory lap on Wednesday. “Why? Because it takes power away from them and gives it back to the people.”

Governor Schwarzenegger backed Proposition 14 to free politicians from party ideology so they’d be more accountable to voters.

“What the parties like is to control their politicians. They like to tell them what to do and how they have to vote up here at the Capitol and that’s why we don’t get things done.” Schwarzenegger said.

Schwarzenegger says the new primary system will break up the ideological traffic jam in Sacramento that delays the state budget just about every year.

Prop 14 was born out of that gridlock. Last year, moderate Republican Abel Maldonado – then a state Senator - broke his party’s “no tax” pledge and voted to pass a budget with tax hikes. He leveraged that vote to get the Democratic-controlled legislature to put Prop 14 on the ballot.

“3.4 million people, independents and decline-to-states will be able to go the booth just like I can and vote for whoever they want,” Maldonado trumpeted.

Maldonado called it a “game changer” that will allow more moderate politicians to win office.

But Bob Stern with the Center for Governmental Studies says Prop 14’s unlikely to shake up California’s political system.

“This is a moderate change,” Stern said “I’d say a tremor, not an earthquake.”

The nonprofit Center for Governmental Studies analyzed Prop 14 and concluded it’ll mostly affect Democrats. Stern says in about a third of the races, two Democrats will compete against one another in the general election. He says that will encourage them to be more moderate.

“Or some people would say more scared,” Stern laughed.

In top-two primaries candidates need to please more than the party faithful to win a spot on the general election ballot.

“If you have more moderate Democrats and you have people who are in more competitive races, they’re much more concerned about what the voters think and they’re less concerned with voting the political ideology,” Stern explained.

But Stern says candidates in open primaries might be more concerned with raising more money to appeal to more voters – which could leave them more beholden to special interests.

Stern says Prop 14 could encourage more decline-to-state voters to participate in primaries. But it might discourage partisan voters from casting ballots in the general election if there’s no candidate from their party.

And Stern said smaller parties won’t be able to get enough votes to place their candidates on the general election ballot.

The Green Party’s Michael Feinstein — the former mayor of Santa Monica — says the top-two primary will limits voters’ choices.

“By forcing candidates not just to run in their own, within their own party but to try and compete for all voters in all parties — a Democrat crossing over to Republican, a Republican passing over to Democrat — means they’ll need more and more money.” Feinstein lamented.

Feinstein says candidates able to raise “more and more money” will be the same old players. He says that’s how it played out in states that adopted the open primary:

“In Louisiana and Washington, where this was adopted, that’s what it’s done there. It hasn’t shifted the political discourse. And it’s not surprising that the people most able to buy elections in California — major corporations — are the ones that funded this campaign.”

California switches to the top-two primary in a couple of years. Bob Stern with the Center for Governmental Studies says it will take a couple election cycles for voters to get used to it. Stern says in Washington state’s first open primary, all the incumbents still won.

There’s also a chance that Prop 14 could be upended. Political parties big and small promise to challenge it in court.

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