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California: The Big Enchilada
By Ken Rudin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, March 3, 2000
Question: I know California has an open primary with all the candidates on the same ballot. However, I understand that only the votes of registered Democrats and Republicans will count for their parties' delegate selection. How is this done? Ron Stopak, Le Mars, Iowa
Question: In California, what incentive would anyone not registered as a Republican have to vote if, unlike Michigan or New Hampshire, his/her vote is not going to matter in the distribution of delegates? Shannon Egger, West Point, N.Y.
Answer: An endless stream of questions has come in as to how the California primary works and why it was set up this way. I'll try to simplify a most complicated system.
First of all, there are different varieties of "open" primaries. In New Hampshire, Independents could cast their lots with either party's contest. In states like Michigan or South Carolina, any voter may vote in either primary. Since neither state is holding a Democratic primary this year (they will choose delegates later in caucuses), many Dems crossed over and participated in the GOP primaries.
California is different. In 1996, over the strong objection of its two major parties, voters passed Proposition 198, which some people (but not everyone see April 16, 1999 and May 21, 1999 columns) call a "jungle" or "blanket" primary. That's when the names of all the candidates, regardless of party, are on the same ballot (Washington and Alaska have the same system). Rule 329b of the Republican National Convention, adopted in 1988, says that primary results in states that hold such primaries may not determine how national convention delegates are awarded.
Both national parties fought California's move to the "blanket" primary and insisted they would not seat delegates who were chosen that way. In 1998 they pressured the California state legislature into placing a measure on the ballot, Proposition 3, which attempted to limit participation in presidential primaries to party-members only. When the voters overwhelmingly rejected that, the lawmakers did an end-run around the electorate by passing a bill in the state legislature, signed by Gov. Gray Davis (D), calling for two presidential primaries one essentially a "beauty contest" that measures vote-getting appeal but nothing more, and the other in which ballots are color-coded by party and will determine delegates solely according to votes of party members. Thus, John McCain could theoretically win the GOP primary on the strength of Democratic and independent crossovers while George W. Bush could win all 162 delegates by getting the most votes of registered Republicans. A "loser-take-all" primary, as some have dubbed it.
On March 7, every California voter will see the same ballot, with the names of all presidential candidates, regardless of party, on the same line. Any voter may vote for any candidate. But registered Republicans will receive blue-colored ballots and Democrats will receive orange ballots, which will determine the delegates awarded. (For the record, American Independent Party members get red ballots, Green Party lavender, Libertarians gray, Reform Party brown and Natural Law Party green.)
The scenario of McCain winning the primary but Bush taking all the delegates has led to talk of a serious challenge of the California delegation's credentials at this summer's national convention in Philadelphia a situation the GOP has not seen since the Eisenhower forces successfully challenged Texas delegates pledged to Robert Taft in 1952. McCain has promised not to support a challenge to the results, a challenge that would ultimately be decided upon by the Republican Party leadership which is controlled by Bush partisans.
As for Shannon Egger's question above as to what incentive a voter would have to cross parties to vote when his or her vote won't count toward awarding delegates, the answer is none. That's why the McCain campaign undertook a feverish effort to try to re-register Dems and Indies as Republicans. And that's another reason why Bill Bradley's campaign has faltered. His blueprint for winning the Democratic nomination was always based on Independents coming out on his behalf. He never envisioned them going en masse to McCain.
At Stake on March 7: Contests in 16 states total (13 Republican, 15 Democratic). (Note: Each state's Democratic delegate total includes "super delegates," which are not up for grabs in primaries/caucuses)
Question: I was intrigued by your response to the question about California Sen. Dianne Feinstein (see Dec. 3 column). How does the open primary work? If Feinstein wins more than 50 percent of the vote on March 7, is she automatically elected? Arun Swamy, Oberlin, Ohio
Answer: As confusing as California's blanket primary is in the presidential race, this is simpler. All candidates for the Senate appear on the same ballot. The Democrat and Republican who get the most votes on March 7 (expected to be Feinstein and GOP Rep. Tom Campbell) advance to the general election in November.
Post Script: My goodness, I really blew it in last week's column regarding Joseph Comstock's question of the eligibility of a House speaker under 35 years of age who found him/herself in line to assume the presidency. I was so intrigued by the concept that I failed to point out the obvious that the order of succession would simply pass this person by. (And I was so blinded by it that I also failed to point out that part of the question's premise which was wrong: The minimum age for a House member is 25, not 30. A senator must be 30, a president 35.)
Needless to say, the mail on this was overwhelming, with many referring to my own column of Feb. 5, 1999. There, I pointed out that though the Secretary of State is fourth in line to the presidency, Madeleine Albright, having been born in another country to non-American parents, was thus ineligible. The same holds true for someone under the age of 35. Some other points raised by my alert readers:
Dr. Griffin Hathaway of Towson University in Towson, Md., who wrote last week about the constitutionality of Al Gore choosing Bill Clinton as his running mate, says there is a "catch" in the Presidential Succession Act of 1947: "It specifically says that any Cabinet officer who becomes acting president can only serve in that capacity until either a speaker or Senate president pro tempore can be produced (if either office is empty) or meet the eligibility requirements for president (or, for that matter, if the disability of the original president or vice president is declared over), or until a president is elected and inaugurated. So under Mr. Comstock's scenario, once either the speaker or Senate president pro tem turned 35 assuming s/he is a natural-born citizen and had resided in the U.S. for 14 years the Cabinet officer acting as president would step down and whichever had turned 35 would then become president."
If the only problem facing the speaker was age, writes Matt Pincus of Silver Spring, Md., then the House, "if in session at the time the vacancy in the office of president occurred, and if the vacancy were unexpected, might immediately replace the speaker with another member eligible to serve as president. Of course, the president pro tempore of the Senate, who is, by custom, the most senior member of the majority party and would certainly qualify by virtue of age, could rush to take the oath as president first. Imagine if different parties controlled the two houses!"
Kaley Davis of Seattle, Wash., offers another worrisome scenario: "One thing neither the Constitution nor this Act seems to anticipate is the highly unlikely event that the speaker, president pro tempore, and all cabinet officials would fail to qualify. In that case, apparently, we would have no President at all until the next election."
And though the minimum age for senators is 30, D.C. Finegold Sachs of Springfield, Va., notes that Henry Clay was only 29 years old when he was selected by the Kentucky legislature in 1806 to serve in the Senate.
Thanks to all who wrote.
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