Will Prop. 14 kill third parties?


Feb. 19, 2010


Californians keep tinkering with the state’s elections system. That’s understandable given the low esteem in which Golden State politicians are held. A January 2010 Field Poll found just 16 percent of voters approved of how the state Legislature is doing its job, and 27 percent gave their approval to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. A Silicon Valley computer company with such low ratings soon would be out of business, its  machines recycled.

“Decline to state” voters have doubled since 1990, to 20 percent of registered voters. Writes Los Angeles Times columnist George Skelton, “Democrats represent about 45 percent of registered voters, down from 50 percent in 1990 but roughly the same as in 2002. Republicans have suffered a steady slide from 39 percent in 1990 to 31 percent last year.”

Understandably, on the June 8 primary ballot is yet another attempt at reform. Prop. 14 is called the “Top Two Primaries Act.” Beginning with the 2012 elections, the primary election would allow voters to pick any candidate of any party (or no party). Candidates would choose whether or not their party affiliation was listed on the ballot. It would apply only to state legislative and congressional elections, not the presidential elections.

The top two candidates would face off in the general election. So there could be two Democrats facing one another, or two Republicans or one from each party. Parties themselves could not nominate a candidate, but could endorse one.

Support comes from so-called “moderates,” in particular Republicans Schwarzenegger and state Sen. Abel Maldonado of San Jose, who recently have been amusing Californians with a much-ado-about-nothing comedy about Maldonado’s appointment to be lieutenant governor. Maldonado sponsored the bill putting Prop. 14 on the ballot. It was co-sponsored by two Democratic moderate senators, Lou Correa of Santa Ana and Lois Wolk of Stockton.

Prop. 14 also is supported by the California Chamber of Commerce. Christine Haddon, Deputy Director, Media Relations/Communications at the Chamber, pointed me to the group’s online explanation:

The CalChamber Board voted to support this measure because they believe it will increase voter participation and empowers Californians in all state legislative districts to elect candidates who represent the broadest views in their district.

The top opposition to the measure comes from the leadership of both major parties, Republicans and Democrats. Reported the Santa Cruz Sentinel:

“The question to me ultimately is who will determine who the Republican and Democratic nominees are,” said California Republican Party Chairman Ron Nehring. Nehring said instead of having primaries decide the party’s candidates, Proposition 14 would mean party bosses choose the nominee, removing millions of Democrats and Republicans from the loop.

The bosses would choose the nominee by giving him the party’s endorsement, which is allowed under Prop. 14.

Third parties shut out?

The biggest effect of Prop. 14 could be on third parties. I talked to three of the four top “other parties” or “minor parties,” as they sometimes call themselves. Currently, they’re the only four parties that meet state law to be automatically listed on state primary and general-election ballots. The Peace and Freedom Party didn’t get back to me.

Prop. 14 would be disastrous for minor parties, Libertarian Party spokesman Richard Winger told me; he’s also campaign manager for Christine Tobin, the party’s nominee for secretary of state, the post that runs state elections. And he edits Ballot Access News. “We’ve seen it in action in Washington state and Louisiana,” two states with similar measures, he said. In the 35 years Louisiana has had such a system, not a single minor party candidate has passed the gauntlet of the primary to make it onto the general election ballot.

Washington state’s first election under its new top-two candidate system was in 2008. But for the first time since it became a state in 1889, “no minor parties or independent candidates were on the ballot for Congress or statewide state office.”

Even worse, he said, is that Prop. 14 makes detrimental changes to minor parties gaining ballot access and to write-in rules. He pointed to current election law, California Elections Law No. 5100, which stipulates three ways for a party getting on the ballot:

* 1. During the previous gubernatorial election, the party needs to get 2 percent of the vote for any office voted on throughout the state, not just the governor’s office. In the 2006 election, that 2 percent threshold was 173,588 votes. That’s the number to be applied for this election, in 2010. (The number should rise after the current election, assuming more people vote than last time.)

In the 2006 election, four minor parties got the following votes, and so qualified for the 2010 election:

Green Peter Miguel Camejo for governor: 205,995 votes
Libertarian Donna Tello for controller: 188,934
Peace and Freedom Party’s Tom Condit for insurance commissioner: 187,618

* 2. Register 1 percent of the vote in the last gubernatorial vote. For the 2006 election, that number was: 86,794. The secretary of state on Jan 5, 2009 released the latest registration numbers, at the bottom of pages 7 and 8 of this .pdf (note the actual total state numbers, not the percentages):

American Independent: 382,380 registered
Green: 111,395
Libertarian: 84,462
Peace and Freedom: 55,036

So, only the American Independent and Green parties meet that threshold.

* 3. Petitions signed by 10 percent of voters. This is impracticable.

Winger said that what’s crucial here is that Prop. 14, by essentially eliminating option No. 1 because no minor parties would make it  onto the November ballot, would automatically bump two of the minor parties off state ballots, including in primaries: the Libertarian and Peace and Freedom parties. Only the American Independent and Green parties would remain on ballots in the primary.

Not only that, but Winger said Prop. 14 stipulates that a candidate can be identified on the ballot only by the name of a registered party. So if the Libertarian Party didn’t make the cut in the 2010 election, and a candidate wanted to identify himself as a Libertarian, he couldn’t do so.

And Prop. 14 would ban write-in candidates, eliminating another option for voters.

Green opposition

Although opposed to the Libertarians on most political issues, the Green Party is standing united with them in opposing Prop. 14. Cres Vellucci, party press secretary, told me that although the party hasn’t yet formulated an official position, “we’re obviously opposed.” Although proponents are saying the measure would increase voters’ options on election day, he said, “it actually doesn’t expand voter choices. Obviously, the public isn’t happy with Republicans and Democrats” running the government. “So eliminating other parties from the general election is opposite of what should happen. You could vote for a Green or Libertarian candidate in the primary but not the general election.”

Vellucci pointed to the polls showing voter dismay with state legislators, all of whom are Democrats and Republicans. He said that’s why voters often take out their dissatisfaction with ballot initiatives, which make an end run around the two party system.

He said a special concern is that, in some districts, both general-election candidates would be from one party – Republican or Democrat. So if you didn’t like that one party, you wouldn’t have any choice at all.

He pointed out that third parties often have “germinated ideas into movements” later taken up by the major parties and play an important role in “educating voters” on the issues. “They say things you just don’t hear from Republicans and Demcorats.”

The Greens, he said, now have 40 to 50 local elected officials around the state – folks actually holding office. And a decade ago, a Green, Audie Bock, won a seat in the Assembly. “We have people who have a chance to win when they’re given a fair shake,” Vellucci said. But if Prop. 14 wins, he cautioned, “You’ll be dead after June.”

Shaking up the system

Markham Robinson, chairman of the American Independent Party, told me “it doesn’t look favorable” that his party would support Prop. 14 and “probably would oppose it.” Still, he said a positive aspect of it is that “it upsets the current political situation.”

He pointed out that America’s Founding Fathers didn’t originally want political parties, and there is no provision for them in the U.S. Constitution. He said the problem today is more than just the structure of the system of elections, but the ease with which a few special interests can capture control of the system. He said a better idea would be “a grassroots-based system” that would start with “small caucuses” and “filter up through several levels.”

As an example, he pointed to the U.S. Senate before the 17th Amendment made members directly elected by the people. In the Founders’ original design, senators were chosen by state legislators.

He also opposed current state and federal election laws as much too onerous, especially on third parties – giving too much control to government bureaucrats, such those at the Federal Election Commission. “We have to get their permission to change how we manage our party,” he said.

Well, as was pointed out above, third parties do come up with interesting ideas.

John Seiler is a reporter and analyst at CalWatchDog.com. His email: [email protected].


Write a comment
  1. EastBayLarry
    EastBayLarry 19 February, 2010, 19:50

    This smells like a move by incumbants to bypass what could be a significant opponent in the elections. Often the third party vote actually means “none of the above” and helps both major parties get those much-needed wake up calls.

    I fear that this may be packaged and sold to the voters as an ‘improvement’ and it may get voted in through ignorance of the real effect. I see this as one step short of voting to cancel elections altogether.

    Reply this comment
  2. Bob Richard
    Bob Richard 19 February, 2010, 19:53

    I’m surprised that Peace and Freedom didn’t respond to your inquiry. We are taking this very, very seriously, and agree entirely with the Greens and Libertarians. See


    We published this even before the proposal had a proposition number.

    Reply this comment
  3. Ted Lawrence
    Ted Lawrence 19 February, 2010, 20:22

    This is nonsense. The only time third parties have won elections in California have been in special elections where the rules were similar to the open primary. Remember Audie Bock. The way they do it is make it into the runoff and then build a coalition with the major party that didn’t make it. Greens would have a better chance of electing a memeber in San Francisco and Libertarians would have a shot at electing someone in Orange County where currently they have no chance. More importantly, it stops the gameplaying of parties helping minor party candidates to qualify to split their opponents votes. This bill stops the Ralph Naders and Ross Perot’s from deciding our election and gives us a more honest view of what voters want. It also cuts down on corruption by attacking the power of the party bosses. The gentleman who threatened to do away with primaries is a lying coward. No party would dare do that and it showed in the one election where the law was in effect. This just means legislators won’t have safe seats any more when they win and will still have to pay attention to all of their constituents. Vote Yes on 14.

    Reply this comment
  4. Jim Riley
    Jim Riley 22 February, 2010, 16:07

    Louisiana’s House of Representatives has a greater share of independents elected as such than all but one other state of the 49 that have partisan elections. In 2006, the last year that Washington had partisan primaries, only one candidate who was not a Democrat or Republican even bothered to file for a legislative race in the entire state (120+ races) even though it guaranteed a place on the ballot.

    In 2008, Washington under its Top 2 election system had more candidates per race in its legislative general election than nearby and politically similar Oregon which maintains its system of partisan primaries. In fact, there were only two legislative races in Oregon with 3 candidates.

    Washington did indeed have some races where both candidates were Republican or Democrats. But these were in districts where the Republican candidate might only get 15% of the vote in a Democratic v. Republican race, or where 5 Republicans filed and no others bothered. Washington conducts 3 legislative races in each district, so it is easy to compare races.

    Since the 1970s California has had a total of NINE independent candidates for Congress in 900 races. Not elected, but merely candidates. It requires around 10,000 signatures to run for Congress as an independent (this is over half a million for a statewide slate of independents). Even more signatures are needed to run for senate, and 1000s to run for the House. If Prop 14 is approved this would be lowered to 40. The minor parties don’t want competition any more than the major parties do – which may explain their opposition.

    Reply this comment
  5. C. T. Weber
    C. T. Weber 24 February, 2010, 00:09

    If proposition 14 passes it will limit choices for California voters and cost more not only for the candidates but for the taxpayers as well.

    It will be like having two general elections. The costs to the counties will more than double according to Jill La Vine the Sacramento County Registrar of Voters. Taxpayers will have to pick up the tab. The candidates must now spend much more because they now need to reach all the voters in the so called primary.

    As bad as that is, the main reason I oppose this deformof our voting system is because it limits the voters choices in November to only two. After being allowed up to eight choices, this is a real restriction. Currently, independent candidates obtain ballot status, between the primary and general elections, however, only two candidates are allowed on the general election ballot. The result is no independent candidates will be allowed. Of course, it goes without saying, there will not be any third party candidates either. To add insult to injury, write-in votes will not be allowed.

    Now you tell me, which system is more democratic. One where all the voters of a party vote on who their nominee will be and then have a general election with the winner of each party’s primary, plus any independent candidates who qualify, and write-in candidates. Or, have everyone on the primary, hopefully not like the mess we had in 2003, and then when the big election comes up with only two candidates. What a scam. Pay more money to limit your choices

    Reply this comment
  6. Scott S.
    Scott S. 2 March, 2010, 14:19

    I don’t want some Democrat telling me what the Republican noninee is, for any race. The idea that this proposal will mean more moderate candidates means that people with strong ideas won’t have a chance. Instead, we’ll have mealy-mouthed politicians who won’t take a stand on anything win elections.

    The future of California is a difficult one. Wishy-washy professional politicians aren’t a solution. We need bold thinkers with new ideas. We don’t need ‘yes’ men or women.

    Plus, this takes away the ability to write in a candidate. Where’s the increased freedom in that. It limits choices, not expands them.

    Prop 14 is a ‘save the incumbant’ bill, written by politicians for politicians.

    Vote NO on 14.

    Reply this comment
  7. John
    John 6 March, 2010, 16:50

    @C. T. Weber

    How about you look up Duverger’s law and shut up?

    Reply this comment
  8. tomx
    tomx 5 April, 2010, 17:40

    The claims of the anti-open primary group are false. Though they say that no minor party candidate has advanced to the general election under open primaries, they conveniently ignore the fact that several independent candidates have- and have won. Louisiana’s state legislature now has three independents in the lower house and one in the upper house. In comparison, California has only one independent state legislator, who was elected as a democrat.

    Furthermore, in Washington’s first open primary election in 2008, two candidates from minor parties and one independent candidate made it to the general elections for the state legislature (though they didn’t win). They were Green Howard Pellet, Libertarian Ruth Bennett and Independent John Moyna. These candidates received 23.65%, 10.56%, and 25.48% of the vote respectively (source- Washington Secretary of State).

    If the anti-Prop 14 campaign wants to gain any ground, I’d suggest they stop lying publicly.

    Reply this comment
  9. Kathy
    Kathy 29 May, 2010, 14:45

    Found these humorous — but accurate — No on 14 videos on YouTube.


    Check them out.

    Sounds like this thread could use a bit of comic relief:)

    Reply this comment

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