Wednesday, June 9, 2010

California's Prop 14

I suppose, as a parties person, I should say something quick about it: it's a terrible idea.  Political parties are good things, and they should be able to select nominees to office.  Democracy works well when parties are strong (although I'm in a minority of a minority in that I like strong but non-ideological, non-hierarchical parties). The problem with California isn't strong parties; it's government by initiatives coupled with a stupid budget system.

For more, I recommend Seth Masket, who is an expert on California parties and nominations, and comments from political scientists Barbara Sinclair, John Pitney, and Travis Ridout here.

Oh, and any time you hear someone say that a political system is such a mess that anything has got to help...well, my advice would be to never take anything that person says about politics seriously again.


  1. We have open primaries in Tennessee and it sucks. Every election there's a race where activists on one side or the other debate voting for the other side's most heinous candidate, in an effort to "throw" the race. And I know for a fact that this happens because as someone who has canvassed for the Democratic Party for the past 3 or 4 elections, I have knocked on more than my fair share of doors where the resident declares themselves to be an avowed Republican and they simply have no idea how their name and address got on my walk list.

    Well, I have an idea. My walk list was generated from the last primary election. If you voted in the last Democratic primary then you are going to get canvassed by the Democratic Party.

  2. Davis,

    Absolutely not. Drum opposed the post you cite, I think he's just saying that he's not all that terribly upset about 14, and then blowing off steam -- he's not saying 14 has to help. Saying that something one opposes probably can't hurt too much is a lot different from supporting something because things are so bad that anything has to be better.

  3. One thing I've learned living in California for the past 40 years is never underestimate the cluelessness of the California voting public.

    I can't see how this silly scheme is going to pass Constitutional muster. Don't the political parties have a right to decide among themselves, excluding uninterested parties, whom to nominate to run for election under their banner, to spend money and time campaigning, whom to allow to articulate the party platform? Bah.

  4. Don't the political parties have a right to decide among themselves...

    Related to this, I wonder also what a change to open primaries does to voter registration drives. Here in TN all voter registration drives have to be non-partisan. And since you don't declare your party on your registration card, scenes like the California Republican Party Voter Registration table I saw at a shopping mall in Corte Madera one day are unknown. It makes it harder for the parties to register their own voters, and things like throwing away the other party's registration forms are more difficult (I know it's illegal but let's remember the CAGOP fraud cases that went under reported while everyone got in a tizzy about ACORN.

    That is, in fact, the good part about open primaries. It forces you to look at demographics differently. We registered a lot of voters in neighborhoods where we assumed a lot of Democrats lived, frankly a lot of them were housing projects and doing the follow up to get the working poor to actually vote on election day and not be disenfranchised by long lines, few voting machines, etc. is just a whole 'nother ball of wax we have to deal with.

  5. I can't speak to the Constitutional challenges to the proposition, but while I think the implementation could be better (I'd love to be able to vote for my top two choices) I fail to see how this measure is such "a terrible idea" and would be interested in Prof. Bernstein expanding on that idea. Having just lived through a primary season in which Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner tried to outdo one another in their rush to the right, I'm not clear on how a process that is friendlier to moderate candidates would be a negative in any way.

    I supposed that there is an argument to be made that political parties should be able to nominate whoever they choose, but that position pre-supposes a "right" of the parties to exert control over the election process, something that as an independent (admittedly, a Democratic-leaning one in the past ten years) I won't immediately concede.

  6. I'm not clear on how a process that is friendlier to moderate candidates would be a negative in any way.

    Not sure the process necessarily is friendlier to moderate candidates, at least in practice. In Tennessee we've got a cavalcade of wackadoodle running for various offices. Maybe some of that is pertinent to this state but I don't see how open v closed primaries has an effect. In fact. it seems to be the opposite: the primary has been a race to the bottom on the GOP side, where everyone is trying to rally to their base. Naturally in the general they will all pretend they never said any such thing.

    On the Dem side, our Democratic Party is so anemic that no one has the money to really stage a vibrant primary race. As pertains to our governor's race, all of the potential candidates dropped out early on. The last man standing won the prize, weeks before our Democratic primary.

  7. "In fact. it seems to be the opposite: the primary has been a race to the bottom on the GOP side, where everyone is trying to rally to their base. Naturally in the general they will all pretend they never said any such thing."

    I guess this is where my confusion comes from - in a traditional primary the eligible voters obviously skew partisan since they have to choose one party's ballot, so there is an advantage to being more extreme. However, since history shows that these candidates nearly always come back to the center for the general election, I fail to see how removing the partisan ballot won't remove some of the incentive for extremism in the primaries. It seems to me that you're essentially having two general elections, but the first one just has more than two candidates.

    Stating this differently, currently as an independent I might like moderate Democrats AND moderate Republicans, but I have to choose one ballot in the primary elections, hence my vote will only moderate one party's candidate slate. As a result, the value of the moderate vote is only 50% as valuable as the partisan vote. If the ballot is truly open, moderate voters can vote for moderate candidates down the line, making the moderate vote equally as valuable as the partisan vote and adding some disincentive for candidates to skew extreme.

  8. Apropos of this discussion, some might be interested in reading Eric McGhee's report from PPIC. (

    To sum up: the argument Prop 14 supporters make is that in a jungle primary, you get the general election push to the center. Of course, the states that have tried this haven't seen turnout jump up amongst their independents THAT much. Partisans show up to primaries not only because they're being asked to make a decision, but also because they have a marked tendency to be more interested in the outcomes of all elections as they generally have more intense preferences than indies.

    As to the question about whether or not this is constitutional: this same system has survived court scrutiny in other states. The blanket primary got tossed out because that was deciding who the Democratic, Republican, Green, etc. nominees would be. This system doesn't do that: it just takes the top two vote getters and puts them in a runoff. Thus, nobody is telling the parties who their nominees are: in fact, the parties have NO nominees! While you could make the argument that the party caucuses are being forced to deal with people that their outside campaigns didn't choose, I'm not sure if there's ever been a case on a party's rights WITHIN a legislature to determine who is in their caucus.

    Now, we might expect that the parties will react the way we might expect them to: the invisible party will crack the whip early and often on "unfavored" candidates, and/or the statewide party conventions may seek to move earlier and make endorsements more frequently.

  9. It may have survived court scrutiny in other states, but it hasn't been put to the Supreme Court yet.

    I have little sympathy for "independents" on this question. They seem to think that a primary election is "democracy," but a primary election is not the "democracy." The general election is your "democracy." The primary election is the vehicle by which political parties choose their candidates. It is the rank and file of the political party telling the party leadership on whom to spend their political donations and other resources. Why should "independents," who have donated nothing and done nothing, get a choice in this? And why should political parties be forced to spend their sweat and treasure on candidates picked by people with no stake in the party or its platform?

    For example, in order to have a vote in, say, a corporation, how it invests its profits, or how much profit should be allocated to dividends, one must be a shareholder. The shareholders get the say in this. The "independent" might have an opinion about those issues, but they certainly don't have a vote. Why should they? They have no stake in the company. Likewise, "independent" voters have no stake in the political party or its platform.

    "Independents" don't like the candidate I chose to stand for election? Tough. Too bad. Field your own candidate. Or get active in the party of your choice if you want a role in selecting candidates and don't like the person I chose. Spending less time whining and complaining about the political process and the candidates up for election might be a more constructive path.

  10. James - to extend your corporate analogy, when a business completely controls its market it has been recognized that special monopoly rules are needed, otherwise that market becomes closed to all competition. In this case, with two political parties that respectively dominate either side of the political spectrum, I'd suggest that a similar effect is occurring. Proposition 14 may not be the ideal solution, but it really does seem like diminishing the power of the parties is a goal worth striving for.

  11. Ryan,

    First of all, California has a number of political parties -- besides the Ds and Rs, there's the Greens, the Peace and Freedom, the Natural Law, the Libertarian, American Independent -- so your "monopoly" argument doesn't wash.

    Secondly, Prop 198, which allowed "Decline to State" voters to interfere with political party business, has been disastrous for California government. "Decline to State" voters, if you talk politics to them, are generally smug prima donnas who can't be bothered to become knowledgeable about candidates and/or platforms, but instead vote for all these looney corporate-bought initiatives with the fuzzy titles that have been the bane of California politics since the early 1990's. That's when they aren't playing the field in some kind of fickle strategy based on their inability to understand the difference between political advertising and reality. They can't be bothered to participate or invest sweat and money into decent candidates and platforms. And yet, the real parties are forced to dance a jig to these people at the expense of developing decent candidates and running on the real party platform. The result has been WORSE candidates, WORSE platforms, not better. Catering to "independents" in my opinion actually prevents political parties from investing in the development of good candidates, which is time- and resource-intensive. The result is what we have -- a fringey, looney Republican party whose only strategy is retaining that one last member that constitutes the one-third reigning "majority" of the legislature. And a Democratic Party that is forced to field the most mediocre, mealy-mouthed serial office-seekers -- Westly/Angelides anyone? The result is that we end up with has-been actors whose most notable political achievement had been sponsoring a half-billion dollar unfunded baby-sitting bill (Prop 49) before he was swept into office on the back of a voter revolt against itself. Of course, the other choices were Bustamante, Arianna Huffington, and that lady in the pink Corvette. All this I place on the backs of the willfully uninformed "Decline to State." Now what's next - the eBay lady? Good going!

  12. James - with regards to your first point, during the height of Standard Oil there were numerous small oil companies, but that didn't diminish the fact that Standard Oil was a monopoly. Currently, despite the fact that there are many smaller parties, it's clear that the Dems and the Republicans monopolize either side of the spectrum.

    Regarding your second paragraph, I think your arguments are insightful, and I'd disagree with them mainly on the basis of my own opinions - most "decline to state" voters I know are knowledgeable but ideologically agree with some aspects of both parties. Similarly, if the argument is that the current process leads to someone like Schwarzenegger, I'd argue that a different process 40 years ago still resulted in Reagan. In any case, I appreciate the dialog as I really would like to better understand all sides of this issue.

  13. Ryan,

    I would argue that the Ds and Rs "monopolize" as you put it either side of the spectrum (it's a very, very narrow spectrum, when you think about it) because their platforms appeal to the majority of American voters, nationally as well as in California. Consequently, they have the funding and the infrastructure -- again, nationally -- to field successful candidates. After all, people have had the chance to vote Green (Nader), vote Independent (Perot, Anderson), vote ultra-conservative (Buchanan, David Duke) and these people ran and lost. Same thing in California. The Greens haven't gone anywhere in California, nor has the Libertarian or Natural Law party. People think, rightfully, that these are fringe loonies.

    Your experience with "Decline to State" voters is much different from mine. I have not found them to be knowledgeable voters at all. I have found them to be the kind of people who don't want to be bothered with educating themselves, to be infatuated with the attention they get from the parties, and narcissistic people who imagine themselves to be brilliant voting booth strategists dictating how political parties should conduct their business. This kind of irrational thinking is what brought us term limits, two-thirds requirement for annual budgets, children being imprisoned with adults, balanced budget requirement, three-strikes law, a mandated half-billion dollar baby-sitting bill without funding and all the rest of the horrors of democracy by Initiative with a Warm and Fuzzy Title.

    Most of the "independent" voters I know are supporters of many aspects of the Democratic platform, but have swallowed the whole "fiscal conservative" propaganda to an embarrassing. When you point out that Republicans are anything BUT "fiscally conservative" (who in the past 40 years has balanced a budget and produced a surplus -- Democrats! What political party are profligate deficit spenders? Republicans!) well, they are just proving that they lack the critical thinking skills to distinguish between fact and advertising.

    Cheers. I appreciate the dialog.

    I wasn't a fan of Reagan even as governor, but his ascendancy from the silver screen to Sacramento had a MUCH different trajectory than Arnold's. You should read all about how he arrived in Sacramento.

  14. James,

    Regarding this section of your first comment:

    "The primary election is the vehicle by which political parties choose their candidates. It is the rank and file of the political party telling the party leadership on whom to spend their political donations and other resources. Why should "independents," who have donated nothing and done nothing, get a choice in this? "

    There are many party members (that is, registered Democrats/Republicans/etc.) who have donated nothing [to their party] and done nothing [to support their party]. Following your logic, they ought to be disallowed the right to vote in their party's primary. Would you agree to this?

  15. I think you are incorrect, Seth. I would not agree to your assertion. Registered party members have a stake in their party by virtue of registering, by becoming members. Sure, it's a minimal commitment, but nonetheless it's a commitment. Contrast that with a so-called "independent", who feels free to fancy himself the brilliant voting booth strategist playing three-dimensional chess, voting for the "worst" candidate of the other party -- it happens all the time. I don't want a rightwing teabagger having as much voice as I do in who runs on the Democratic ticket. The Republicans don't want me to have as much voice as they do in which teabagger they stand for election.

    It's just not a good way to run an election. Better to pick the candidates in the smoke-filled back rooms at party headquarters than to allow this kind of dishonest finagling, IMHO.


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