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Sunday Take: California's possible solution to partisan politics

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 6, 2010; A02

California Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado (R) minced no words when he talked about changing the polarized politics that he said are killing his state. "The system we have today is taking our Golden State to its knees," he said. "It's frankly embarrassing."

Few Californians would disagree that their state is in a terrible mess, and that gridlock and partisanship in Sacramento have contributed to it. Whether people agree with Maldonado's prescription for change will be answered Tuesday, when voters will decide the fate of a ballot proposal, Proposition 14, that would dramatically change the way political candidates are nominated.

Proposition 14 calls for the elimination of the party primaries that now select candidates for the general election. In their place, California would institute a system that would put all candidates for the state legislature, Congress and statewide office on the same primary ballot, open to all voters. The top two finishers, regardless of party, would advance to the November general election.

As with Washington, Sacramento is a bitterly divided capital. The partisan divisions, along with structural impediments requiring supermajorities to raise taxes, have left the state's finances in a shambles. Prop 14 is the latest attempt to create a more hospitable environment for moderates in the two parties to come together in the center.

"The system we have today makes candidates go to the extreme right on the Republican side and the extreme left on the Democratic side, and when they come together [in Sacramento], they can't govern," Maldonado said. "Governing is hard, but we must govern."

The current primaries in California attest to that. Republican gubernatorial candidates Meg Whitman, the former chief executive of eBay, and Steve Poizner, the state insurance commissioner, spent part of last month trying to outdo the other on who would be tougher against illegal immigrants. Whether Whitman, the front-runner, has damaged herself for the general election remains an open question.

In the GOP Senate primary, businesswoman Carly Fiorina, the current front-runner, has proudly touted her endorsement from Sarah Palin to help demonstrate just how conservative she is. But the more moderate candidate, former congressman Tom Campbell, points to one recent poll that shows him in a stronger position to beat incumbent Barbara Boxer (D) in November.

The Los Angeles Times, in endorsing the proposition, wrote: "When voters are no longer restricted to candidates of their own party, candidates will be compelled to seek consensus positions rather than play to the party extremes."

But would Proposition 14 produce the outcome claimed by its proponents? On that question, there is plenty of doubt and disagreement. "The effect is likely to be marginal," said Bruce Cain, a political science professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

He pointed to a study by Eric McGhee, published by the Public Policy Institute of California, that examined the arguments for the "top two vote-getters" system of nominating candidates. Proponents argue that if candidates had to appeal to all voters in a primary, rather than just those in their party's base, more moderates would make it to the general election. McGhee said the evidence, mostly from past experience in the state with a related system, "points to a slight advantage to moderate candidates."

Proposition 14 has the support of outgoing Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a moderate Republican. He has been repeatedly frustrated by his inability to bring along the rest of his party to support budget compromises with Democrats that include tax increases.

Prop 14 went on the ballot as part of a deal struck between the Democrats and Maldonado, then a state senator, to pass such a budget last year. A grateful Schwarzenegger later made Maldonado lieutenant governor.

The ballot initiative has plenty of opponents, including the Democratic and Republican state chairmen, who think it would weaken political parties. Ron Nehring, the state Republican Party chairman, said if voters approve the initiative, the GOP would revert to a system in which candidates are selected through party caucuses and conventions.

He said that would be a step backward, handing more power to political insiders. "These [conventions] will be dominated by party activists," Nehring said. "So instead of 5 million people nominating candidates [in a primary], you'll have a couple of hundred nominating them."

The process Nehring envisions would allow a political party to designate its favored candidate in advance of the open primary. Others in the party could still put their names on the open primary ballot, but the party would put its money and get-out-the-vote muscle behind those chosen through the convention system.

Other opponents include representatives from minor parties, who argue that the system would prevent them in all but rare cases from making it to the general election ballot. The proposition also excludes write-in candidates from the general election ballot, a flaw that some proponents said should be corrected if it should pass Tuesday. Still another complaint is that in heavily Republican or Democratic districts, the two candidates who advance to the general election would be from the same party.

California tried a version of this in the late 1990s under somewhat different rules known as the blanket primary. All candidates were placed on the same ballot, which was open to all voters. The voters could pick any candidate they wished, but the top vote-getter from each party advanced to the general election.

The Supreme Court ruled that system unconstitutional. Proposition 14 is patterned after a later Washington state law that has passed constitutional muster with the high court.

Recent polls have shown a majority of voters supporting Proposition 14. Although there are many opponents of the measure, proponents have spent far more money on the campaign. That gives supporters hope that it will pass, though they are not especially confident.

Whether changing the rules will change the culture of politics in California, or elsewhere, is unanswerable. Some skeptics think only a change in behavior by politicians will truly mend the dysfunctional politics of Sacramento -- or Washington. But if Californians say yes to Proposition 14 on Tuesday, the rest of the country will be watching the results closely.

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