Monday, February 23, 2009


Thoughts about "Open Primaries"

I've been reading some of the objections to the proposed "open" primary for seats in the California Legislature. The proposed primary would be just like the primary election for a local "non-partisan" office. Candidates would enter the primary and could state their party affiliations if they wished. Voters would choose among the candidates. The top two would then compete in the general election.

One objection is that it is possible under such a scheme for both top vote-getters to belong to the same party. They could even belong to the party not favored by the majority of voters in the district. Thus, a sixty-percent Democratic district could be represented by a Republican and a sixty-percent Republican district could be represented by a Democrat.

How could this happen? Suppose, in a 60 or 70 percent Democratic district, six or seven Democrats entered the race and only two Republicans. It is possible that the Democrats would split the vote among them to the extent that the top two would be the Republicans.

If this does happen, it would not be long before someone would be circulating an initiative petition to cure the problem. Now, there are several known cures. The law could be written so that the top Democrat and the top Republican would face off against each other in the fall election. The law could be written to eliminate the primary election altogether and simply let all candidates participate in the general election. In that case, the voters would be asked to choose their favorite, second favorite, third favorite, etc., among all the candidates. The winner would be chosen by a process known as "instant run-off" voting. (I've explained elsewhere how this works.)

Even though these procedures are well-known and have been tried successfully in other democracies, I doubt very much that any Californian would think of them. Some other cure would be proposed. Most likely, the change would be to return to the present primary law.

Many years ago there was a commission to study and propose changes to the California Constitution. Erwin Chemerinsky was a member of the commission. One change that was not proposed was to have proportional representation, a plan used by most democratic countries outside of the US, Canada, Australia, and Great Britain. I asked Erwin why the commission had not suggested such a change. He told me that it was too radical an idea.

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