Sunday, July 11, 2004

Should voters go for an open primary?: No

Been there; done that; it's a party pooper

By Seth Masket
The Sacramento Bee

Partisanship has become a four-letter word in American politics. Recent instances of extreme partisanship in the nation and state - from the Clinton impeachment to last year's California budget showdown - remind us of how frustrating polarized parties can be.

This November, Californians will have a chance to vent some of their frustrations against the two parties. The Voter Choice Open Primary Initiative, if it passes, would have the two leading vote-getters in a primary - even if they are of the same party - advance to a runoff election. This initiative would likely allow for the election of more moderate state legislators.

In a conservative Orange County Assembly district, for example, the runoff might pit a conservative Republican against a moderate Republican, who could win with the help of moderate and liberal voters. Such a system could substantially weaken the role of parties in the Legislature.

This may all sound well and good. But before embracing a radical new way of electing our public officials, it is worth reflecting on some experiences Californians have had with weak-party systems.

The Progressive reformers of the 1910s were frustrated with parties, which they saw as corrupt institutions that came between the people and their government. Their most effective party-killing reform was known as cross-filing, under which candidates could run in as many different party primaries as they wished without their party label appearing on the ballot. From 1914 to 1952, incumbents - usually the best known candidates in an election - almost invariably won reelection at the primary stage by winning all the parties' nominations.

The effect of cross-filing was to create an essentially nonpartisan Legislature. Politicians were Democrats or Republicans in name only. Key legislative votes, including the vote for speaker, were often decided by multi-party factions or were even unanimous. Party caucuses became little more than social gatherings.

As it turns out, politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. Since the parties were either unwilling or unable to organize the Legislature, someone else did it. That someone else was invariably a corporate lobbyist.

Well-heeled industry lobbyists like Artie Samish, the self-proclaimed "governor of the Legislature," stepped in and built the coalitions he needed to pass or kill legislation as his clients demanded. From the 1930s through the 1950s, almost no legislation passed the Legislature that hadn't been approved - or drafted - by lobbyists from the oil, alcohol, soft drink or banking industries.

This situation only ended when activist groups began mobilizing voters, encouraging partisans to run for office and repealing Progressive laws. This year's open primary initiative, while not exactly the same as cross-filing, would move us back toward a similar weak party system and the corruption that it permitted.

We can look outside California for more evidence of what kind of effect such an open primary law would have. Louisiana, the only other state to elect its officials this way, has one of the least partisan state legislatures in the country. Once again, when parties can't or won't lead, someone else does. In Louisiana's case, it's the governor. Louisiana governors so dominate the state legislative houses that they traditionally even handpick their leaders.

Here in California, our strong parties provide a check on industry lobbyists, special interest groups and even popular governors. The Republican Party prevents Gov. Schwarzenegger from dramatically raising taxes to deal with our chronic budget shortfall, and the Democratic Party prevents him from drastically slashing public funding or forcing too few groups to shoulder too much of the burden. The end result will be a compromise that may not be exactly what the governor wants, but it will spread the pain of fixing the state's budget ills far more evenly.

A strong party system is not necessarily pretty to watch. Indeed, it can be profoundly frustrating. But the Louisiana-style primary would limit the parties' ability to provide leadership. And when they cannot lead, someone else far less accountable to the voters will, and the voters are the ones who will suffer in the end.

— Seth Masket starts this fall as an assistant professor of political science at the University of Denver. He just received his PhD from UCLA; his dissertation was entitled "A Party by Other Means: The Rise of Informal Party Organizations in California."


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