Will Prop. 14 kill third parties?

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Feb. 19, 2010

By JOHN SEILER

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].


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