Saturday, May 29, 2010




Every poll shows California voters believe state government is often paralyzed, frequently controlled by ideologues of left and right, plus special interests that provide much of the cash for ever-more-expensive political campaigns.

But that's just talk. Now the time has come at last for those same voters to show they’re serious, and not just full of hot air when they say they don’t like what’s been going on.

Two measures on today’s primary election ballot (editors: sub “Tuesday’s primary election” here, or “the June 8 primary election,”depending on your run date for this column) could gradually begin to change the current dismal situation, where ideology and big donations are often controlling factors for both the Legislature and many statewide officeholders.

These are Propositions 14 and 15, both of which would bring incremental improvements to the current system.

In the short run, Proposition 14 is probably the more important of the two, promising to force candidates for the state Assembly and Senate to appeal to a broad majority of voters and not the ideological minority that often controls the outcome of primary elections – and thus eventually decides who gets elected.

In the longer term, Proposition 15 could prove just as important, perhaps eventually leading to a system of public financing for statewide election candidates that could deflate the power now wielded by the super-wealthy – folks like former eBay chief Meg Whitman and current Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, the only two major candidates for the Republican nomination for governor. Neither would be a significant factor today without the many millions of their own dollars they have sunk into the contest.

If approved, Proposition 15 would create public financing in 2014 and 2018 for candidates seeking one statewide office – secretary of state, a post many feel should be non-partisan and apolitical anyway. This is described as an experiment that could pave the way to public financing for other offices if it works well.

Candidates who demonstrate broad voter support by getting many small donations would receive equal amounts of public money – raised by increasing the fees lobbyists pay to register each year from $12.50 to $350, with nothing coming from taxpayers – to run their campaigns. Anyone taking these funds would be prohibited from raising private dollars. The new lobbyist fees would still be lower than what’s paid annually by California doctors and lawyers and lower than lobbyists pay in most other states. Court decisions mandate there cannot be a ban or limit on use of personal funds, but there’s nothing to stop opponents from shaming candidates into keeping their wallets shut and running purely on their merits.

So while this would in not remove personal money from politics, it might be a start in keeping corporations and labor unions away.

Proposition 14, meanwhile, aims to set up a “top two” system where candidates in all districts are listed together on the primary ballot and the two leading candidates advance to the November runoff, regardless of party. All voters could vote for any candidate they like, regardless of party affiliation by either the voter or the candidate.

By contrast, today’s system lets Democrats vote in Democratic primaries, and Republicans in theirs. Voters who decline to state a party choice can also vote in either party’s primary, but don’t get a party ballot unless they specifically ask for it. That's why relatively few decline-to-state voters participate in party primaries. Plus, there’s nothing at the polls to advise independents they can ask for a party ballot.

All of which means that in today’s highly skewed legislative districts, where one party or the other almost always has a huge margin in voter registration, the extremes determine the candidates. Republican candidates need only appeal to conservative voters, while Democrats can get by playing only to the ultra-liberal.

This system could produce runoff races between two Republicans or two Democrats. And why not, if they are the two candidates with the widest voter appeal? Minor parties gripe this could lock them out of general elections. But why should parties whose total vote is often less than 1 percent be given automatic runoff slots? The solution for them is to produce candidates with wide appeal who are capable of finishing in the top two in a primary – the same system used now in all special elections for Congress and the Legislature.

If it’s good enough for special elections, why not those that are regularly scheduled? The minor parties never even address this question.

If a “top two” system produces more moderate, compromising lawmakers than the current closed primaries, that will be a start toward ending the ideological gridlock in Sacramento.

And if Proposition 15 makes a start toward getting special interest money out of politics, that’s another step in the right direction.

Which means that if voters really want to end what so many have labeled dysfunction in Sacramento, today (editors: sub “Tuesday” or “June 8,” as appropriate) offers the best chance for change in many years.

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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