Will Open Primaries Work?



One of the basic arguments in favor of Proposition 14, the open-primary initiative on the June 8 ballot, is that it will help end gridlock in state government. Prop. 14 backers contend that Sacramento can’t solve any problems because it’s dominated by left-wing and right-wing politicos who can’t agree on anything. They say that open primaries will result in the election of more moderate candidates who will be able to put politics aside and reach compromises. But the Sacramento Bee reports that a similar new law in the state of Washington has yet to achieve that sweeping goal. And the CoCo Times reports that the California Republican Party has quietly devised a plan to help blunt the effects of Prop. 14 should it pass.

Prop. 14 would eliminate the requirement that registered Democratic voters only get to vote for Democratic politicians in state primaries, and registered Republicans only get to vote for Republicans (the measure does not apply to presidential races). Instead, it would allow voters to vote for whoever they want, regardless of party affiliation. Supporters of the measure say it will result in more moderate candidates winning office, particularly in heavily gerrymandered districts.

The reason is that Prop. 14 requires that only the two top vote-getters in the primary go onto the general election. And in heavy Democratic and Republican districts, that means the two candidates who make the runoff could be from the same party. In Orange County, for example, it may result in a conservative Republican versus a moderate one. Backers of the measure say the moderate would then have a better shot because Orange County liberals and independents would be less likely to cast ballots for the conservative candidate.

However, the Bee reports that in Washington state, only eight of the 125 races held since voters approved the open primary law in 2008 have resulted in runoffs between same-party candidates. The Bee does quote one expert who noted that in all eight of those races, the more moderate candidate won, but eight contests hardly amounts to sweeping reform.

The Bee also notes that Washington’s law has led to more backroom political party deals, because Democrats and Republicans alike have become worried about too many candidates splitting the vote in primaries. As a result, fewer candidates now run for office in Washington overall because of arm-twisting by party leaders. Still, the open-primary law is very popular there. A recent poll showed that 76 percent of voters liked the system.

But the CoCo Times noted over the weekend that the California Republican Party has quietly adopted a plan it hopes will lessen the impact of Prop. 14 should it win. GOP officials decided that they will hold caucuses before the primary to determine which candidate to endorse in the race before Election Day. That way, party officials can let voters know which candidates have their support and which do not. And since the party tends to be more conservative, then the candidates it endorses will likely be more conservative as well.

Based on the experience so far in Washington, the open primary law appears to be having some marginal effects on elections there. And it seems increasingly clear that the only real way to elect more moderate candidates is through redistricting reform. Until California has legislative districts that aren’t so one-sided in terms of being heavily liberal or heavily conservative, then state government will continue to be polarized.