From Hollywood to high-tech, California has often been the country’s trend-setter. So the rest of us should pay close attention to the state’s latest big idea, which will appear on the ballot June 8 as Proposition 14.
If it passes, it will stand the state’s electoral process on its ear, ending state party primaries in favor of a wide-open, two-tier voting system for all statewide and Congressional races, today’s New York Times reports.
First, candidates representing everything from the Social Peace Party to the Pizza Crust Party (OK, I made that one up) will run in a single first-round primary election. The two top vote-getters would then move on, regardless of party, to Round 2, which would determine the winner.
This is not a popular concept in the world of traditional politics. Leaders of the state’s Democratic and Republican parties are, for a change, united in opposing it, The Times reports. The Green Party hates it. So do the Libertarians.
But then, it could well pass; The Times says it’s got more support than opposition in polls. For one thing Americans are furious about politics as usual this year. For another, it has the support of the Terminator, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. For a third, Californians love to be contrarian (trust me on this, I used to live there). And finally, residents of the state of Washington already passed something similar and, though tested just twice, the sky has not yet fallen there.
Still, I’m a skeptic. I find the measure, like a lot thrown onto the California ballot each year as initiatives, intriguing but half-cocked. Supporters say it will discourage those on the extremes of both parties and put more moderate candidates in office. But that, of course, is conjecture. In an election with a big field of would-be winners, it’s just as likely that an extreme candidate with passionate supporters might emerge as one of the top two by capturing 10 or 15 percent of the vote.
I’d say a more likely problem is that the Prop 14 system could turn politics into even more of a fashion show for the rich and famous than it already is. Those with big names or deep pockets could dramatically increase their odds of buying a place on the final ballot based purely on the ability to seize the advertising megaphone. Those who follow politics closely and who play a role in selecting political leaders who’ve worked within the system could see their influence significantly diminished. And those trying to be heard as candidates for minor parties could have even less voice than before.
I do believe, however, that this system might be worth a try if it were modified. I’m all for eliminating party primaries, which do tend to anoint candidates who preach what the true believers of both parties want to hear. The current system produces too many parrots and too few independent-minded political leaders. But rather than picking the top two vote getters in each first round — a system that weighs the outcome heavily toward those with a lot of money or name recognition — I would move the top three candidates and anyone else who had received more than 20 percent of the vote into the second round.
This might be sloppier — Round 2 could have as many as four candidates instead of two — but it also would prove more democratic, making it possible for an effective dark horse or maverick to ride with the rich into the second-round runoff. (The rewritten proposition might also state that if no one received at least 40 percent of the vote in Round 2, a third round between the top two would establish the winner.)
So I’d urge my Calfornia friends to do this: Vote no on Prop 14 this time around. Then improve it, and try your hand as the nation’s trend-setter once again.