California Proposition 14 and its effect on political parties

First published in The Examiner.

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recent edition of seminal news and issue radio show “Which Way, L.A.” involved a lively debate between supporters and detractors of Proposition 14.

The show, moderated by Warren Olney on KCRW (89.9 in Los Angeles), is usually able to arrive at a sort of clarity about divisive issues such as climate change through interviews with representatives of all sides. At the very least, one is usually able to understand the arguments of differing point of views, or even learn that such arguments actually exist.

The May 4th, 2010 edition, however, left an uncharacteristic sense of confusion due to the obstinacy of both interviewees and the unfortunate time constraints that exist in broadcast journalism.

A quick summary and analysis of the program may help untangle the issue.

Status Quo

Currently, the system for state elections (as well as national elections) is that each party sends one candidate to the general ballot. In any given November voters have the choice between one Democrat, one Republican, and usually at least one third party candidate, be it Green or Libertarian. It is also possible to run as an independent (that is, without party affiliation) as Florida Governor Crist is planning to do in that state’s Senate elections, but far easier to become an independent while in office (as Connecticut Senator Lieberman has).

The candidate each party sends is chosen from a field of party candidates in a primary election. In the 2008 presidential elections, any voter could cast a ballot in the Democratic Party’s primaries, as Eric Baumen, Vice Chairman of the California Democratice Party, somewhat superfluously points out in the program. On the Republican side, however, only registered Republicans were able to vote.

It may be going too far to say, as Jason Olson, the Director of IndependentVoice.org did on the broadcast, that “as everybody knows, the primaries are the real elections where all the real decisions get made.” However it has been generally observed that candidates will be further toward their respective side, left for Democrats, right for Republicans, during the primaries. They will then moderate and centralize their messages once they have moved on to the general elections in order to win over the undecided middle-ground. It may then follow that a candidate only reveals his or her true ideology during the primaries. It is also likely, however, that the stance displayed in the primaries is a fraud meant to capture the party base and the general election reveals the real positions.

The Proposition

Proposition 14 would mean: “All voters would receive the same primary election ballot for most state and federal offices. Only the two candidates with the most votes—regardless of political party identification—would advance to the general election ballot.” The general election, therefore, could ostensibly be composed of two Democrats, two Republicans, two Greens, two Libertarians, two independents, or any mixture thereof.

Jason Olson argued that the current system disenfranchises independent voters while Eric Baumen countered by pointing out that 80% of California voters list party affiliation and therefore prefer the party system. Olson may be exaggerating but Baumen’s argument is flawed. Not only is the logical connection between the statistic and the conclusion somewhat dubious (just because voters list party affiliation doesn’t mean they prefer the system, it is possible they do so simply to be able to vote in primaries) but also the implicit 20% of voters who do not list party affiliation is not a small or insignificant quantity.

Baumen goes on to say that what Proposition 14 “means for sure is that anybody who’s a Libertarian or a Green Party person in this state will never, ever, ever make it to a November election.” His point, though overstated, is that the top two vote getters in any primary under rules such as Proposition 14 will always be from the two main parties. He continues by arguing that this will lead to Democrats spending money to campaign against other Democrats as part of the “evil plot” of the measure.

Counterarguments against the opposition

To begin, this line of reasoning assumes that each party will put forward only one candidate for the open primaries when the truth can be far different. In fact, the bigger parties are probably more likely to put forward several candidates, because they cover a large ideological spectrum, than are the smaller third parties, which are much more focused.

The result in a traditionally liberal district could well be that a Green Party candidate receives the most votes with a Republican in second; a  Democrat in third; and another Democrat, who siphoned party votes from the third placer, in fourth. The general election would then be between the Republican and the Green Party candidate, who is probably more likely to win in a liberal district.

Baumen’s second point that the measure could lead to Democrat on Democrat warfare is dulled by the fact that this already happens in party primaries. However this seems to be the chief logical reason for the Democratic and Republican parties’ strong opposition to this Proposition 14.

His third point of contention in the interview, that this proposition was part of a backroom deal by Governor Schwarzenegger cooked up for political purposes, is a genetic fallacy; it attempts to discredit an argument (in this case Proposition 14) by citing its origin while not addressing the actual argument (Grush, 2/27/06).

Olson points out that, in San Francisco under an open primary system, the general mayoral election came down to a contest between a Green and a Democrat. Baumen counters that one example among the thousands of elections does not hold water (although it does if one considers it as a rebuttal to his argument that a third party will “never, ever, ever” reach a general election) and then attempts to discredit the idea of third parties in California altogether.

The debate moves on from that point but without a clear winner. Olson misses several chances to make strong arguments and Baumen largely continues the aforementioned weak ones.

Motive

It is difficult to decipher, besides the issue of intra-party campaign warfare, why the Democratic Party opposes the ballot measure so strongly. One must only consider the case of the 2000 presidential election, where Green Party candidate Nader was widely believed to have siphoned votes away from Democrat Al Gore in key states and cost him the election against Bush. Votes for Nader were mostly deemed to be symbolic, useless, or trying to send a message, because the Green Party never really stood a chance of winning the election. If the election had occurred under open primary rules, the message could have been sent in the primaries by making Nader third place behind Gore, and then the votes could have been cast for the Democrats in the general election.

A similar effect can be seen in last week’s Parliamentary Elections in the UK. Some voters admitted that they voted for Labour even though they preferred the Liberal Democrats simply because they felt Labour had a better chance. An open primary would have made voting for their first choice risk-free.

In other words, Baumen’s argument that third parties would seldom make appearances in general elections would probably work in favor of the Democrats, at least in blue states like California.

The difference is that the larger parties would have to take into account the message sent by third party voters during the primaries. They would be more likely to field candidates with broader support in future cycles. This would indeed push candidates toward the ideological center, as proponents of the bill advertise.

Whether the Democratic or Republican parties think that this is a worthy goal or not is another question altogether.

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    Valora en Bitacoras.com: In fact, the bigger parties are probably more likely to put forward several candidates, because they cover a large ideological spectrum, than are the smaller third parties, which are much more focused….