Saturday, December 19, 2009




Memo to California voters: If you’re tired of dysfunctional government where ideology trumps good public policy, vote yes on the “Elections: Open Primary” proposition this June.

Why? Because that’s the quickest way to assure putting at least some moderate centrists into the state Legislature. It’s also the quickest way to give a voice to millions of voters who now essentially have no representation in state government. And it's the first step toward making state government work better, far faster and surer than a constitutional convention or any other tactic.

The open primary would be pretty simple: Each primary election would be completely open, with all candidates from all parties listed on a single ballot. No more Republican, Democratic, Green, Libertarian or any other party primaries conducted simultaneously but separately. No more haggling over whether to let independent voters into party primaries.

From that one ballot, the top two vote-getters would reach a runoff election, regardless of their party affiliation, unless one has a clear majority.

This should sound familiar; it’s exactly how hundreds of local elections in California have been conducted over decades. This is why two Democrats often are the finalists in mayoral elections in places like Los Angeles, Oakland and Sacramento.

The open system differs in two ways from the “blanket primary” approved by voters in 1996 and later thrown out by the U.S. Supreme Court. That plan, used only in one California election cycle, also listed all candidates on a single ballot, but it put the leading vote-getter from each party into the runoff election. So all parties still conducted their own primaries.

The ideological extremists running both major parties hated that system as much as they despise the open primary, also known as the “top two” system. Regardless of ideology, party honchos can’t stand the idea that voters from the other major party could influence the primary outcome in theirs.

This might in fact be bad for the party bosses. But it’s good for almost everyone else. Here’s why:

Today’s legislative and congressional districts are gerrymandered so thoroughly that even though term limits change the bodies occupying them, very few seats ever switch parties. Change can rarely happen when voter registration in many districts is so one-sided that winning a party primary is tantamount to election.

So in a district where Republicans hold a 60-40 percent registration edge among voters willing to affiliate, Democrats essentially have no voice. Whoever wins the GOP nomination will get the seat. The converse for districts where Democrats maintain big advantages.

Because the primary winner can’t lose in a runoff, candidates rarely even try to appeal to the general populace, speaking only to the party faithful. Meanwhile, party primaries for many years have been dominated by extremists on the left or right, the left for Democrats and the right among Republicans.

Open primaries can change all that. Republicans running in GOP districts would need Democratic votes and could no longer cater only to their party’s right wing. The same for Democrats in districts their party dominates.

That’s exactly what leaders of the two major parties don’t want. Elected at party conventions attended mostly by true believers, they represent the far fringes, not the broad moderate middle of America and California. It's no accident party bosses who find it hard to agree on anything all want to maintain the system that created them.

They went to court together to throw out the blanket primary and they teamed to defeat an open primary proposition in 2004. Their counterparts did the same thing in Oregon last year, defeating a top-two proposition there.

The two major parties are joined in opposing top two by the smaller parties, who want to stay in general elections even though they have no chance to win. They whine that they should have a presence in every election, regardless of whether they’ve earned it.

Even officials of the major parties will piously argue for this while they're opposing open primaries. It’s the only time these people give the slightest thought to Greens, Libertarians and other small parties.

But open primaries don’t deprive any party of anything it earns. Put up candidates with wide appeal and they would make runoffs, just as they occasionally do in local primary elections.

There’s also the complaint that an open primary can put two candidates from the same party into a runoff. This can happen only if one of them draws heavily from members of the other major party. It’s possible in districts with one-sided registration if many members of the No. 2 party cross over in the primary. Rather than depriving those voters of representation, as party purists claim, an open primary actually would give them influence for the first time since 1998.

All of which should make the open primary the top priority this spring for any voter interested in better government for California. Nix it again and voters will have no one to blame but themselves for continued gridlock in the state Capitol.


Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

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