Capitol Weekly

Monday, July 5, 2004

Senate and Assembly Quickly Pass Measure
to Battle Open Primary Initiative


In a bipartisan effort, legislators in both houses quietly passed SCA 18 in an eleventh hour attempt to compete with a non-partisan primary elections initiative currently on the November ballot. The Senate Constitutional Amendment Committee, chaired by Senator Charles Poochigian, met on June 21 to discuss the constitutional revision that author Senator Ross Johnson says will foster a “full, free, and open debate in California’s electoral process. The following day, the Assembly Elections, Redistricting, and Constitutional Amendment Committee approved the measure with a 4-0 vote in an unannounced meeting.

SCA 18 would guarantee that every political party participating in a primary election for a partisan office has the right to participate in the general election as well. Each party would rightfully place on the general election ballot the name of the candidate who received the highest number of votes among that party’s candidates. “This is all about voter choice,” explained Johnson, who co-authored the measure with Senator Deirdre Alpert.

The California Constitution currently requires the Legislature to provide partisan offices with primary elections including an open presidential primary. The secretary of state must find each name on the ballot to be general election candidates recognized throughout the nation or throughout California for the office of President of the United States. Names would also include those candidates placed on the ballot through petition.

The amendment addresses two issues, primary elections and surplus State property funds. Opponents of the measure criticize Johnson for sneakily deceiving voters into voting for something with which they do not agree. Johnson said he refused to be pulled into that trap. “What this is designed to do is confuse the voters,” and comes in direct conflict with voter choice, said Kevin Spillane, consultant for Californians for an Open Primary, a group which supports the nonpartisan initiative.

Supporters of the Voter Choice Open Primary Act likened Johnson’s measure to a “Trojan Horse.” It makes no sense that the measure’s two subjects are together, Spillane pointed out. They have amended a bill and quietly tried to rush it through under the guise of “motherhood and apple pie” surplus property language. Johnson claims that a difference exits between initiatives that originate with lawmaker and voters. According to the legislative counsel, unconstitutional amendments do not fall under the rule. Spillane criticized the counsel’s authority and objectivity. Opponents of Johnson’s measure claim that its two-subject nature violates a rule in the California Constitution limiting initiatives to one subject. Yet courts have rarely implemented this rule to void ballot initiatives.

Spillane said that while he hopes this does not go to court, he is willing to pursue all legal remedies. “This is one of the bloodiest, ugliest initiative fights that we’re going to see all year” because it threatens political insiders. Spillane explained. This is why the California State Legislature is held in so much low esteem, he added.

The measure’s second section is relatively uncontroversial and could carry the nonpartisan proposal even if a majority of voters do not agree with the primary elections portion. It would require that all proceeds from the sale of $1 billion worth of surplus state property be directed to pay the principle and interest on bonds. These bonds, issued under the Economic Recovery Bond Act, finance the accumulated state budget deficit. Californians voted on this act during the March 2, 2004 primary elections. It will save taxpayers tens of millions of dollars, Johnson said.

Once the principle and interest are fully paid, remaining accumulated funds would flow into the Special Fund for Economic uncertainty within the General Fund. Revenue from previously sold property will meet the same end if the funds have not been expended or encumbered. Surplus state property purchased with special fund moneys is exempt from this requirement.

In addition to the two-subject objections, Spillane heaped criticism on the measure for its uncharacteristically fast pace in moving through the Legislature. Spillane notes the bill’s rushed nature and that the Senate rarely sees such prompt, bipartisan action. In about one hour, SCA 18 passed through the Senate Constitutional Amendments Committee and the Senate Appropriations Committee, as well as the Senate floor with a 28-3 vote. The bill is clearly designed to thwart the will of the public, Spillane accused, as he urged a no vote. Spillane said that he nearly gagged when Johnson alluded to a full, free, and open debate.

“We face a deadline” to qualify for the November 2 nd ballot, Johnson said as he defended the seemingly rushed nature of the process. Both sections of the SCA 18 received bipartisan support, a requirement for a measure to successfully pass through the process this close to the deadline. SCA 18 required a two-thirds vote to pass.

The Voter Choice Open Primary Act would copy verbatim a model currently in existence in Louisiana. Yet Louisiana has the worst voter turnout year after year, Johnson said. In this model, all voters participate in the primary election, and the top two candidates, regardless of political party affiliation, appear on the general election ballot. The Act would base primary election eligibility on the number of voters registered for the political party rather than the party’s performance in the previous general election.

Johnson argued that the open primary initiative would, instead, completely eliminate direct primary elections and replace them with general elections. “Their proposal is fundamentally anti-democratic” he said. Under this system, two candidates from the same political party could appear on the same general election ballot, potentially undermining the power of smaller political parties. The presidential primary would remain partisan.

This bipartisan measure will simply expose the true nature of the opposition’s proposal and force them to discuss their initiative, Johnson said. He suggested that the initiative is merely an attempt by “spoiled rich people” to use money to buy an open primary system.

State Controller Steve Westly and State Education Secretary Richard Riordan are among the key leaders who back the non partisan initiative. The initiative drew enough support to submit 900,000 signatures in May qualify it for the November ballot. The Latino community largely supports the bill and supports cuts across all parties, Spillane noted.

Voters in the 1996 primary elections passed Proposition 198 with a 59.51 percent aye vote, demonstrating considerable public interest in an open primary. The argument for and against the proposition shed light on the issue at hand.

Proposition supporters claimed that an individual should have the right to vote for the candidate with a favorable stance on the issues of most personal importance. This would encourage voters to make choices based on candidate character rather than party membership. It would also halt the trend of electing extreme liberals and conservatives to office. More candidates would take the moderate ground.

Yet significant concerns arose as well. Should parties allow outsiders to meddle with their internal affairs? The sole purpose of a primary election is for political parities to nominate a candidate to represent them in the general election. Leaders of both major political parties object to the lessened influence on candidate selections. An open primary would also encourage manipulation of the system through specially targeted voting.

In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court cited the right of free association in its ruling against the law that allowed voters to cross over party lines in their voting. The Court claimed that the First Amendment gave political parties the right to exclude nonmembers from selecting their nominees.