Don’t Sideline State’s Voters

Remember how we all used to snicker when Politburo elections in the old Soviet Union regularly returned margins of 99.9 percent for the victors? Well, now have a laugh at our own expense: The current elections for the Legislature and Congress in California are barely more competitive.

In 2001, the Legislature adopted and the governor signed a decennial redistricting plan that eliminated even the semblance of competition from most legislative and congressional seats. Democrats, for their part, wanted to lock in their huge legislative majorities for the next decade. Republicans wanted to protect their current congressional majority against any effort to carve out more Democratic seats in California.

They succeeded beyond their wildest hopes. In the 2002 general election, there were only five competitive legislative races worthy of the name in the whole state, one in the 20 Senate seats up and four in the 80 Assembly races. There were none at all in the 53 congressional races.

The 2004 election promises to be no better — and, in fact, may be even worse. There are only three projected “toss-up” contests out of all 153 congressional, Senate and Assembly races this fall — zero for the Congress, zero for the Senate and three for the Assembly.

What is the practical result for the voters of this bipartisan gerrymander, which has rendered general election match-ups laughable in district after district? If you are a Republican in a strongly Democratic district, you have no effective voice whatsoever in who represents you in Sacramento or Washington, D.C. Voters in the Democratic primary — in which you can’t vote — pick the almost-certain winner. And even though there may be a Republican candidate on the fall ballot, he or she has no realistic chance of winning.

If you’re a Democrat living in an overwhelmingly Republican district, you also have no real say whatsoever in who represents you in the Legislature or the Congress. The ultimate winner will be whoever wins the GOP primary — in which you can’t vote – and the general election result is a given.

So primary elections have become all-important under these circumstances, with which we are stuck until 2012. And that’s one reason both of us are supporting a return to the open primary, in which any voter can vote for any candidate, regardless of party.

In 1996, voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 198, which established California’s first open primary. Despite the fervent opposition of the two major parties and several of the minor ones, the initiative received nearly 60 percent of the vote, and carried every single county in the state. The form of open primary elections established thereby was in effect in 1998 and 2000.

But in the summer of 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out our open primary law on constitutional grounds. So in 2002, the state reverted back to the closed primary, in which Democrats could vote only for Democratic candidates, and Republicans could vote for only Republicans.

The open primary plan we support, called the Voter Choice Open Primary Initiative and which will be on the November ballot, would work in this way: In the primary election, all candidates in each state and congressional race, regardless of their party registration, would appear on the same ballot, just as they did in 1998 and 2000. Independents also could run in the primary.

All voters, regardless of his or her party registration, would be allowed to vote for any candidate, regardless of the candidate’s partisan affiliation, just as they were in ’98 and ’00. Again, voters not registered with any political party could also vote for the candidate of their choice in every race.

Then the top two vote getters in the primary, regardless of their party affiliation, would move forward to a general election runoff.

And by the way, don’t let anyone tell you this is some radical, untested new method of electing our public officials. The proposed system is very close to the way in which we have elected city and county officials in this state for nearly a century.

California voters are very familiar with this process.

As the chief political strategists to California’s last two governors, we also have direct personal experience with the open primary — and we believe in it.

In 1998, Gray Davis was nominated in what was the state’s first — and so far only — open gubernatorial primary. He drew 13 percent of Republican voters and 42 percent of independents in the primary, beating not only two other Democrats but the eventual Republican nominee as well.

In last fall’s recall election, Arnold Schwarzenneger was elected governor in what was essentially an open primary, in which all candidates were on the same ballot and voters could choose any candidate, regardless of party. Fully 21 percent of Democrats picked Schwarzenegger, along with 46 percent of independents.

Is this proposed new open primary perfect? No, but it has been carefully constructed to avoid the constitutional problems of Prop. 198. In this matter, as in so many others in life, we cannot let the perfect become the enemy of the good.

Will the open primary be a silver bullet that will solve all of our systemic political problems? Of course not. But it is a start — and an important one – in the effort to increase voter choices, interest and turnout.

We are often asked, will the open primary favor Democrats? The truthful answer is: We don’t know. Will it advantage Republicans? Again, we don’t know.

But those aren’t the right questions. The most important thing is the open primary will benefit the voters. This is not an attempt to stack the system to help one party or another. It is a bipartisan campaign to change the whole system in order to allow the voters back into the process.

After all, real electoral democracy, unlike back in the U.S.S.R., should give voters real choices, not foregone conclusions or rigged results.

Mike Murphy was chief strategist for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s gubernatorial campaign in the recall election and is senior advisor to Schwarzenegger. Garry South was chief strategist in Gov. Gray Davis’ 1998 and 2002 campaigns and served as senior political advisor to Davis.