This week’s primary election on June 3 occurred after Guardian press time for this issue, but there’s one conclusion that we can draw about it without even knowing the results: This is a pretty shabby form of democracy that few voters cared about. California’s experiment in open primaries is a disaster, and it’s time for a new model.
Turnout for this election was expected to hit historic lows, and for good reason: There was nothing of any real significance on this ballot, except perhaps for Proposition B on the San Francisco ballot, to require voter approval for height increases on waterfront development projects.
Even the hotly contested Assembly District 17 race between David Campos and David Chiu was simply a practice run for a rematch in November, thanks to an open primary system that sends the top two primary finishers, regardless of party, to the general election.
The system was approved by voters at Proposition 14 in 2010, placed on the ballot by then-Assemblymember Abel Maldonado as part of a deal with then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to break a budget stalemate caused by their fellow Republicans. Such horse-trading should have been a bad sign that this change wouldn’t live up to its idealistic hopes.
Its backers promised that it would favor more moderate candidates and reduce negative campaigning, but that hasn’t happened. Indeed, at press time it appeared Gov. Jerry Brown would be facing the most radically right-winger in the race, Tim Donnelly, in November.
What it has instead done is reduce the primary election to a boring and meaningless waste of time and money, turning off voters and creating low-turnout elections that are more prone to manipulation by wealthy special interests.
We at the Guardian are all for greater experimentation in our electoral models. We were big supporters of the ranked-choice voting system that is working well in San Francisco and Oakland. We support even more aggressive models for publicly financing campaigns and reducing the role on private money in electoral politics. Hell, we also support a proportional representation system and other wholesale transformations of our political system.
But while we’d love to see even more electoral experimentation, we also need to recognize when experiments are failing, as California’s open primary system now is. It’s time to try something new.