Calif. 'Top Two' Act Limits Elections for Third Parties

Monday, 14 Jun 2010 09:25 AM

By George Will

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Under the current imperfect administration of the universe, most new ideas are false, so most ideas for improvements make matters worse. Given California's parlous condition, making matters worse there requires ingenuity, but voters managed to do so last Tuesday.

Actually, 8.9 percent of eligible voters did. By a margin of 54.2 percent to 45.8 percent, they passed Proposition 14, the Top Two Candidates Open Primary Act. Proponents outspent opponents 20-1. Of the approximately $4.6 million spent promoting the measure, $2 million came from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's political committee.

He seems to consider this reform his defining achievement, which, in a sense, it is. The percentage of Californians who today approve of Schwarzenegger is a number beginning with 2. But now California has adopted a candidate selection process that is intended to nominate candidates like him.

Proposition 14 is an attempt to change government policies by changing the political process. Henceforth, in primary elections that select candidates for most state and federal offices — including almost one-eighth of the U.S. House of Representatives — all voters, regardless of party registration, or those who have "decline to state" status (no party identification — 20.2 percent of Californians), will receive the same ballot. All candidates for a particular office will be listed, regardless of party affiliation, if any, which they may choose to state, or not.

The two receiving the most votes will be on November ballots, regardless of the desires of the political parties the nominees may claim to represent.

Proposition 14's purpose is to weaken and marginalize parties, traditionally the principal vehicles for voter education and mobilization. It would strip them of their core function of selecting candidates who represent the preferences of their members. It infringes the First Amendment protection of freedom of association, which includes the right of parties not to associate with candidates they do not select.

Supporters of "top two" primaries think parties are too representative — too responsive to their "ideological" members. These are usually the parties' most interested, informed, and active members. But such people are, say Proposition 14 supporters, tiresome because they are not congenial centrists.

Being "partisan," they do not practice the bipartisanship that enables government to "get things done." Among California "centrists," getting things done usually means raising taxes to pay for other things government has done.

In areas where Democrats or Republicans dominate — there are more and more of them as the nation increasingly sorts itself out into clusters of the like-minded — the November ballots will offer voters a choice of two Democrats or two Republicans. Voters with sensitive political palates can savor faintly variant flavors of liberalism or conservatism.

Voters who prefer their political menu seasoned with the spices provided by minor parties are pretty much out of luck. Under Proposition 14, such parties — Green, Libertarian, etc. — which previously could place candidates on November ballots, will almost always be excluded from those by failing to run first or second in primaries.

But, then, blandness is the point of this reform. It seeks to generate a homogenized political class, one not lumpy with liberals and conservatives who, being conviction politicians, do not always play well with others.

Does America need a cure for "partisanship," the supposed disease of leaders such as Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson at the birth of America's party system? Does America need a nominating process that narrows choices by stacking the deck against minor parties?

Does it need a process that produces "pragmatic" candidates who, because they have no ballast of "ideology," aka ideas, and are not rendered "rigid" by convictions, can "reach across the aisle" to achieve compromises congenial to the entire political class? Does America need a nominating process that, suppressing candid partisanship, will tempt stealthy partisans to game the system by voting a weak candidate into the top two?

Putting Proposition 14 on the ballot was the price paid for the vote of Abel Maldonado. He was a Republican state senator last year when three Republican votes were needed to enable Democrats to pass another tax increase that supposedly would solve the budget crisis that preceded the current one. Maldonado also was rewarded by Schwarzenegger, who made him lieutenant governor.

Maldonado plays nicely with others. He is not rigidly ideological: He worked across the aisle to reach a compromise that gave the political class access to more of other people's money. He, like his patron, the governor, is, presumably, pretty much the sort of pragmatist Proposition 14 is designed to favor.


George Will's e-mail address is georgewill@washpost.com.

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