One of the measures on California’s primary ballot tomorrow, Proposition 14, would impose an “open primary,” or “top-two” primary, system under which voters would select from all qualified candidates for congressional, statewide, and legislative offices, regardless of party affiliation, and the top two vote winners advance to a runoff in the general election. The thinking is that under the current system both major political parties nominate candidates that cater to their paties’ bases, producing “extreme” candidates and fostering more division in Sacramento, thus making it more difficult to pass state budgets. By essentially encouraging independent voters to contribute to picking party nominees, it is argued, more moderate candidates will be elected and things will run smoother in the legislature as a result.
This ignores, however, that under the open primary system the top two vote winners in many districts will be from the same party. According to a Center for Governmental Studies report, more than one-third of districts would likely see two candidates from the same party square off against each other during the general election in this system. This hardly encourages more moderate candidates in such districts, and will give voters that don’t belong to that party no real choice or incentive to show up at the polls for the general election. It would also effectively destroy all third parties in the state, as their candidates would rarely, if ever, make the top two. This would make it practically impossible for them to even qualify to field candidates in future elections.
The “more moderate candidates” argument for open primaries also raises the thorny question of whether voting systems should be socially engineered in an attempt to secure the election of candidates with certain ideologies in the first place. But even if we ignore this and assume that, on balance, the makeup of legislators would be more moderate, and even if we further grant that this might make it a little easier to break “gridlock” and pass budgets, this in no way ensures that we would get any better government out of the deal. California’s problem is not its difficulty in passing state budgets (although that, in itself, can be very exasperating), but rather its inability to live within its means and control spending; its uncontrolled increases in state workers’ pensions; its high-tax, high-regulatory climate that drives away businesses and jobs. Those are the types of things the state needs to address to return to fiscal responsibility.
Despite the warm and fuzzy connotations of “bipartisanship” in the current political discourse, the invocation of bipartisanship usually just means that the taxpayer is going to have to reach for his wallet again. With or without an open primary system, making it easier to pass a budget likely means that it will be that much easier for legislators to repeat the mistakes of the past and raise taxes and spending even further until voters deliver the message that they’re simply not going to take it anymore.
Then there is the fact that an open primary would violate the freedom of association that allows people to form their own private groups and set their own rules for their organizations. As I argued in a recent column on the open primary measure,
Political parties are nothing more than private groups. The Republican and Democratic parties may be larger than others, but they are nonetheless private organizations and entitled to establish their own rules to select their candidates for political office, even if that means not allowing people outside their group to influence those nominations. The government has no more right to dictate how political parties select their nominees than it does to determine how the local Rotary club, Chamber of Commerce, or religious organization chooses its leaders.
As Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America, “The most natural privilege of man, next to the right of acting for himself, is that of combining his exertions with those of his fellow-creatures, and of acting in common with them. The right of association therefore appears to me almost as inalienable in its nature as the right of personal liberty. No legislator can attack it without impairing the foundations of society.”
To be sure, California government is broken, the state’s finances are in shambles, and there is plenty of blame to be shared by both major parties. Implementing an “open primary” system will do nothing to fix the state’s problems, however, and will only trample upon individuals’ freedom of association and further disenfranchise voters.
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