In California in 2009, Abel Maldonado, a liberal Republican state senator, made a Faustian bargain with the Democrats who controlled the legislature.
They needed one more vote to pass their budget. He would give it to them in exchange for their okaying his brainchild, a ballot measure to do away with party primaries.
As a result, the legislature sent it to the June 2010 ballot as a referendum that would amend the state constitution and create a one-ballot primary for everything but president, judicial positions, and non-partisan races. Then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a nominal Republican, announced his support and rewarded Maldonado by appointing him lieutenant governor for a few months (to fill a vacancy).
The voters rewarded Maldonado for his mischief by defeating him for a full term in that year’s election. On the other hand, they passed what had become Proposition 14 by nearly 54 percent. Since then, all candidates, regardless of party, appear on a single ballot in the primary. The top two advance to the general election in November.
In June 2014, 28 out of 150 legislative races—nearly 20 percent—had only one party on the November ballot (more Democrats than Republicans).
The most recent case was a special election held last week for the 7th State Senate district, held in suburbs on the east side of San Francisco Bay. No Republicans ran in the primary, so two Democrats advanced to the general election. Steve Glazer, a campaign consultant by profession, faced Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, a liberal heavily backed by labor organizations.
Glazer bashed public employee unions, something otherwise unheard of in Democratic Party circles. The unions spent millions to undermine his campaign. Business and other Republican interests supported Glazer.
He won by 54-46 percent.
Maldonado’s original hope was that his “open” primary election scheme would result in more “moderate” candidates running for both parties. He got his wish—partially—in Glazer’s victory who is now identified as a foe of public employee unions. Along with the well-funded environmental lobby, they more-or-less control the state legislature.
Governor Jerry Brown, in his first gubernatorial incarnation (1975-79), gave public employee unions the right to collective bargaining. They have had a chokehold on the legislature ever since. Their work force keeps growing and overly generous pensions keep increasing public liability. If Glazer votes with Republicans on issues involving these unions, he may help slow this juggernaut, but not reverse it.
The upshot of two full cycles of the new “open” primary system is that parties are deprived of choosing their own candidates from among their registered members. One result: either party may forego backing a candidate in a district where it is certain to lose, thus saving campaign money. A downside of the new system is that it has turned the state parties into PACs rather than training grounds for candidates and the building of structures to support them.
A possible upside is that Glazer-like Democrats may run in more districts—candidates who favor economic growth and oppose public employee union domination.
One side effect: the new system further marginalizes “third” parties such as the Greens, Libertarians and Peace & Freedom. Prior to 2010 they were able to place candidates on the November ballot if they conducted a primary among their members. That is no longer possible and it is unlikely any will make the “top two” under the new rules.
Will this system spread to other states? Perhaps, but be aware it is no unmixed blessing.