For days, California was on the brink of financial disaster. With the legislature unable to pass the budget because of requirements that the bill garner 2/3rd of the state Senate’s support, the state government had already started taking a series of catastrophic measures: hundreds of infrastructure projects were halted, and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger ordered the layoff of 10,000 state workers.
In the early hours of this morning, the Golden State managed to avoid a meltdown: A deal was finally struck, a mix of tax hikes and program cuts that garnered enough Republican support for the state legislature to pass the budget. But the compromise contained a last-minute addition that, if implemented, would dramatically alter California’s election system, endanger dozens of safe incumbents, boost moderates and potentially open the door to third parties: a two-round election system.
Republican state Senator Abel Maldonado insisted that an “open primary” provision be included in the package. Desperate for his vote, Democrats gave in, agreed to attach to a budget bill a major electoral provision and organized a roll call on the issue at 5am. The Los Angeles Times describes Democratic lawmakers opposed to the reform nevertheless voting for it while “near tears.”
Open primaries can only be implemented through a constitutional amendment, so the budget deal’s adoption is not enough to change California’s election laws. The measure will be placed on the referendum ballot in June 2010; if approved, it would start being applied in 2012.
I would expect both parties’ establishment to rally against the amendment, and the referendum’s prospects are very uncertain: California voters rejected a similar initiative in 2004, but they did adopt it in 1996. The state Supreme Court struck the 1996 provision down as unconstitutional, and the 2004 version (and presumably the current version) have been modified to take that into account. Naturally, we won’t know whether the bill passes the constitutional muster until the Supreme Court takes it up again. In any case, open primaries would transform California politics to such an extent that it is important to start discussing the ramifications.
What would change?
Currently, California uses the most common electoral system: Both parties hold nominating contests (only voters who are registered with a party can vote in its primary), and the winners move on to the general election. The open primary system, which according to this bill would apply to local and federal races, would be very different: All candidates from all parties would compete on the same ballot, and the top two vote-getters would move on to a runoff.
In other words: Instead of having a one round primary followed by a one round general election, there would be two rounds in the general election. This system is used in many countries in the world (France, for instance), and a number of American states use it at the local level, but no state currently has such a procedure for federal elections. (Louisiana did, but it changed the system again last year.)
Needless to say, this would have a major impact on California politics. The state’s legislative districts have been gerrymandered in such a way as few very can conceivably host competitive general elections: they are generally heavily Democratic or heavily Republican. Thus, a blue district’s lawmakers are chosen exclusively by its Democratic voters and a red district’s lawmakers are chosen exclusively by its Republican voters.
An open primary would change that up:
1. The ultimate decision is differed from a closed primary to a runoff.
Let’s take a very liberal district, for instance, in which half-a-dozen Democrats are running. In the current system, the winner of the Democratic nominee would be certain to win the general election. In an open primary, that is not the case: the odds are high that the top two vote-getters will be Democrats.
The intra-Democratic contest would thus only be resolved in a runoff, and independents and Republicans would help choose which Democrat will be elected. This is an obvious boost to moderates of both parties, who will have a far easier time building majorities in the runoff than in their party’s closed primary.
2. It allows independents to vote in both rounds.
Currently, independents can only participate in the general election since California’s primaries are closed. With an open primary system, however, they would help choose which candidates advance to a runoff.
This could prove significant in heavily partisan seats. If two liberal and one conservative Democrat are running, for instance, independent voters could ensure that the latter makes it in the top two vote-getters and thus has a chance in the runoff (see #1). But it could prove even more important in seats that are more evenly divided and where the runoff is likely to be an opposition between a Democrat and a Republican. Here, independent voters will essentially be tasked with helping to choose a party’s runoff candidate - and this should once again prove a boost to moderates.
3. A door would open for third parties.
This is the one consequence that could have prove advantageous to progressives, at least to those who would like stronger third parties in the United States.
A major reason for America’s two-party system is the fact that there is only one round in the general election. Liberals who are attracted to a third party candidate but want to make sure Republicans lose have to cast their vote for the Democratic nominee, since they will have no future opportunity (a second round) to do so: If you care about Democrats winning, a vote for a minor candidate is a wasted vote.
That is no longer the case in a two-round system, in which third party candidates can no longer be attacked as spoilers. A liberal voter can cast a ballot for the Green Party in the first round since the need to defeat Republicans will have been deferred to the runoff. In other words, third party candidates should expect to receive significantly more votes - especially in heavily heavily liberal and heavily conservatives districts in which a significant share of voters are dissatisfied with the two major parties.
In France, for instance, the top two vote-getters rarely get more than 50% of the first round’s vote. More than half of voters usually opt for someone other than the candidate of the leading right-wing party (the UMP) or the leading left-wing party (the Socialist Party), and other parties regularly advance to the runoff. The most famous (and extreme) example occurred in 2002’s presidential election, when far-right leader Jean Marie Le Pen came in second and moved on to the runoff with only 17%.
Over the course of a few cycles, third parties could build enough support to qualify for public funding and access more ballots. Freed from the accusation of playing spoilers, they would also have an easier time winning elections. For instance, might Dean Barkley have gotten more than 16% in Minnesota’s Senate election had voters not been worried that Al Franken and Norm Coleman needed their votes?