Bill Whalen: Politi-Cal

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Open Primary, Same Closed Results?

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To some, it’s the promise of an end to ultra-partisan lawmakers. To others, it’s the gelding of political parties.

Either way, the upcoming California open-primary initiative, which if approved would allow voters to vote in a party primary regardless of their political affiliation, with the top-two finishers moving on to the general election, is an idea Californians love or hate.

Now comes a report from the Public Policy Institute of California saying, in effect, that an open primary (aka Proposition 14) would have a limited effect on state politics.

It reaches this conclusion based on research of the “blanket primary” that was in effect in California after the passage of Proposition 198 back in 1996.  Under that system, which was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2000, voters could choose a candidate in a race without regard for party lines.

Highlights from the report (you can click here to download the pdf):

Crossover voting was sometimes very high. It was especially prevalent among Republicans in heavily Democratic districts and Democrats in heavily Republican ones. In the 2000 presidential contest, 27 percent of ballots were crossovers in one direction or the other.

Most voters didn’t cross party lines to sabotage the other party. Contrary to fears that voters might try to clear the way for their own party’s nominee by voting for the other party’s weakest candidate, most voters chose the candidates they liked best. Successful sabotage of another party’s candidates would require complicated coordination among voters.

Many crossed over to choose the incumbent because the incumbent was familiar. A top two vote-getter primary would be just as likely as the current system to maintain incumbents in office. However, this incumbency effect would insulate both moderates and partisans, so even a small moderating effect might build over time as moderate winners retain office and new ones arrive to join them.

Still more crossed over to participate in a competitive contest. Candidates with well-funded campaigns are generally better known and more competitive. As a result, disparities in campaign funding are likely to continue to play a significant role under a top two vote-getter primary.

Voter turnout was modestly higher. Voter participation was a few percentage points higher in 1998 and 2000 than in comparable midterm or presidential elections before or since.

Campaign spending increased, but not more than expected. Although there was an increase in campaign spending, it was no greater than would be predicted based on longer-term trends.

“The top two vote-getter primary would probably have a noticeable but modest effect on voting and representation in California,” says Eric McGhee, PPIC research fellow and author of the report, At Issue: Open Primaries. “We should not expect this reform to quickly or dramatically change the state’s partisan climate.”

Bummer.

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Written by Bill Whalen

February 11, 2010 at 8:03 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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