The problem with open primaries

The real impetus behind the top-two open primary measure comes from Gov. Schwarzenegger, who has been pushing this idea since 2004.
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OPINION California voters will see a ballot measure in June 2010 seeking approval for a "Top-two Open Primary" system. The measure would make it far more difficult for Californians to vote for any candidates other than incumbents and their best-funded challengers. It would also make it even easier for incumbents to get reelected.

Under the measure, all candidates for Congress and state office would run on a single primary ballot in June. Only the top two vote-getters would appear on the November ballot.

This system has been used in two other states, Louisiana and Washington. Louisiana used it for Congressional elections between 1978 and 2006. In all those years, only one incumbent was ever defeated for reelection (except that in 1992, two incumbents lost because they had to run against other incumbents, due to redistricting). Even Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) was reelected under the top-two system in 2006, although the FBI had raided his Congressional office in May 2006 after $75,000 in bribe money had been found in his freezer.

But when Louisiana switched its Congressional elections to a system in which every qualified party had its own nominee, Jefferson was defeated by Joseph Cao, a Republican. That only happened because a vigorous Green Party nominee, Malik Rahim, polled 3 percent, "spoiling" Jefferson's chances. Democrats will probably reclaim the seat in 2010 with a better nominee.

During the years Louisiana used top-two, no minor party ever placed first or second in the first round, except once in 2006, and then only because the minor party candidate was the incumbent's only opposition. Thus, in all the more than 30 years Louisiana used the system, minor party candidates were nearly always missing from the final round.

Washington used top-two once, in 2008. Out of eight U.S. House seats, 8 statewide state races, and 123 legislative races, only one incumbent was defeated in the primary.

The only real change in Washington in 2008 was the elimination of minor party and independent candidates from the November election. For the first time since Washington has been a state, no minor party or independent candidate was on the November ballot for Congress or a statewide state race.

When minor party or independent candidates are kept off the November ballot, they can't campaign in the summer and fall campaign season. The California proposal even eliminates write-ins in November.

And if the measure wasn't harmful enough to minor parties, it also changes the rules for how a party retains its state recognition; parties would need approximately 100,000 registered members to survive. Currently the Peace and Freedom Party only has 58,000, so it would lose its place on the ballot. That's ironic, since in 2008 Peace and Freedom had its best showing for president ever in California — 108,831 votes for Ralph Nader.

The real impetus behind the top-two open primary measure comes from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has been pushing this idea since 2004.

Schwarzenegger has shown repeatedly that he doesn't care about political minorities and voting rights. Twice he vetoed bills that would have made it easier for voters to have their write-in votes count. Twice he vetoed the bill for a compact among the states that would have guaranteed (if enough states passed the idea) that the person who got the most popular votes would win the presidency. He even vetoed a bill to delete some obsolete laws, declared unconstitutional in 1967 by the State Supreme Court, that barred members of the Communist Party from working in public school districts.

Now he wants an undemocratic primary system. The voters should reject it.

Richard Winger is the editor of Ballot Access News.