Wednesday, June 9, 2010




Now we know for sure: California voters are fed up with the status quo in Sacramento and want state government fixed. They want an end to the ideological gridlock that has long afflicted the Legislature and they want state lawmakers who are not beholden to extremist elements of either political party.

That’s the meaning of the June 8 victory for Proposition 14, the open primary measure setting up a system some prefer to call “top two.”

In fact, from now on, the top two vote-getters in all California primary elections except presidential votes will make the general election ballot, setting up possible November runoffs pitting Democrat against Democrat or Republican against Republican.

It also means that getting the endorsement of a party organization or a labor federation will no longer be tantamount to automatic election.

This is the best thing California voters have done for themselves since 1996, when they voted in a slightly different open primary system – the so-called “blanket” system – which produced several election victories for moderate candidates in the few years it was operative. Both major political parties combined in a lawsuit to get that setup thrown out by the U.S. Supreme Court, but Proposition 14 was designed after the “top two” system now operating in Washington state, which has won approval from the high court.

A study by the non-partisan Public Policy Institute of California earlier this spring concluded that Proposition 14 would not produce immediate massive change.

That’s probably true. But as incumbents in Congress, the Legislature and state offices gradually fall victim to term limits or other factors producing turnover, its effects will become profound.

For political districts in California have been one-sided for more than a generation. They are either top-heavy with registered Democrats or dominated by Republicans. In both parties, extremists tend to vote more frequently and more heavily in primaries than moderates. This may be a result of the fact that party organizations ruled by either the extreme left or the extreme right have pretty much removed doubt from the outcome of most primary elections long before Election Day.

Not even the changes to be wrought by the 2008 Proposition 11, which created a citizens redistricting commission that is now being selected via a laborious process, will change much of that. For several demographic studies have shown that persons with similar political views tend to choose the same places to live. That may be due to real estate prices, which can act as a segregating factor creating neighborhoods for the rich, the middle class and the poor, or it may be because people of various ethnicities are more comfortable living among people similar to them.

Whatever the reason, those studies show, the new districts to be drawn in 2011 may have more logical shapes and boundaries and there may be a few more politically competitive districts than the state has today, but most will probably still be dominated by one party or the other.

That’s why a combination of better districts and open primaries is needed to increase the number of legislators willing to compromise with political rivals and consider the good of the entire state more important than party ideologies.

As Jeannine English, president of California wing of the American Association of Retired People, said in a pre-primary essay, the open primary will lessen the opportunities for candidates to pander to extremists.

“We see it every time a primary approaches – Democrats pander to organized labor, promising tax increases to fund more union jobs and government programs,” she said, “while Republicans scream about taxes and make promises to big business that tie their hands (once they’re elected).”

With many districts seeing party registration splits of about 60 percent to 40 percent in favor of one party or the other, a large minority of voters has been essentially without representation for generations. Now candidates in Republican districts can hope to make the runoff and eventually win election by appealing to a combination of moderate Republicans, independents and moderate Democrats. The same in reverse in Democratic districts.

The combination of this new system and the new districts about to be drawn means a long-term sea change is coming to California politics starting in 2012, with its effects to grow stronger every two years.

Which ought to go a long way toward restoring reason and not ideology as the guiding force in state government.

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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