Advancing a Free Society

California’s Open Primary: An Open Can of Worms?

Friday, May 20, 2011

In June 2010, California voters passed Proposition 14, changing the process for choosing primary winners. Instead of the two parties’ leading vote-getters advancing to the general election, the Golden State switched to an “open primary” system in which the top two finishers move on, regardless of party affiliation – the idea being that such change would lead to a new wave of centrist, less partisan officeholders.

That new system was put to its first test this week in the form of a special election in California’s 36th Congressional District to replace the retiring Rep. Jane Harman.

Judging by the results, Californians might want to take a mulligan on last year’s Prop 14 vote.

In a district where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 18%, the surprise outcome was a July runoff between . . . a Democrat and a Republican. Not a principled Democrat who ran on health care or foreign policy, mind you, but one whose strategy was to purposely dilute the progressive vote. As for the Republican, he’s a little-known advertising exec whose stem-the-tidal-wave-of-red-ink ad was music to the Tea Partiers’ ears: two kids at a lemonade stand, getting socked by a $427,000 tax bill (each kid’s share of the $14 trillion national debt).

In other words, a runoff between two pols not to be mistaken for a couple of holier-than-thou moderates.

So why did the open-primary hiccup?

  1. Overcrowded Slate. The 36th CD race featured five Democrats, six Republicans, one Libertarian, a Peace and Freedom Party candidate, plus three others with no party affiliation (click here to see the results). That encouraged the frontrunner to divide the opposition, rather than bulk up her own candidacy. As a result, that top finisher, Democrat Janice Hahn, received a mere 24.6% of the special-election vote. Not exactly a mandate.
  2. Late Money Still Dominates. The Republican qualifier, Craig Huey, had the smarts to save his resources for the closing a days and a last-minute push on television – a time-honored tradition in California politics. Between the media exposure and a savvy campaign that identified the 27% GOP share of the district’s electorate, Huey pulled in 22.2% of the special-election tally -- enough to get his ticket punched for the runoff.
  3. Voter Apathy. Only 14%, or one in seven voters, took part in last Tuesday’s vote. This wasn’t a problem last November, when California enjoyed its highest voter turnout in 16 years. But take away the hundreds of millions of dollars in television ads, get-out-the-vote efforts and other party mechanics, and it’s evident that Californians are either too distracted, too bored, or too jaded to bother voting on a Tuesday in May.

The shame of it is the 36th District, which spans the coast from San Pedro north to Venice Beach. Over the latter third of the 20th Century, it see-sawed between the two parties. Now a minority-majority district, it went for Obama in a big way in 2008. Still, its representative was a Blue-Dog, pro-Israel hawk – and no bff of Nancy Pelosi’s, to boot.

Between this election and the coming redistricting, such quirkiness may be a thing of the past in what’s supposed to be America’s most imaginative nation-state. Thus begging the question of where, exactly, political reform efforts such as the open primary are leading California.