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Monday, March 29, 2004

Open Primaries for California? 

In November, according to this article (link via Taegan Goddard), citizens in California will get to vote on whether to adopt a system of "open primaries" to replace the current system (familiar to most Americans) of party-members-only primaries. The referendum is being opposed by the two major parties, but has garnered support from prominent moderate politicians like Richard Riordan and Leon Panetta, and by some big corporations.

Why should voters care? Will it make any difference? The theory underlying the referendum is that the new system will weaken party control over nominations, to the benefit of more moderate candidates. At first glance, this argument makes a lot of sense. But will it really work?

Actually, this is California's second go-round with open primaries. A 1996 ballot initiative established a system whereby all candidates were listed on a single ballot, and the candidate in each party (including Green and other minor parties) with the most votes won his or her party's nomination and appeared on the general election ballot. The Supreme Court ruled that system unconstitutional, but only after two elections using the new system had been held.

The latest ballot initiative is a little different, further reducing the role of parties in California politics. Under the proposed new system, all candidates would once again be placed on a single primary ballot, but this time only the two top votewinners would appear on the general election ballot, regardless of party.

I'll check into the literature later, but my guess is that this reform will probably work as planned, except in very small elections (assembly seats, maybe) where mischevous "strategic" voting is a possibility. It certainly should be much less subject to strategic voting than the old "open primary" system, which some evidence (see Public Choice 114:387-420 for the nitty-gritty) shows was actually less likely to produce moderate candidates than a closed-primary system.

In any case, this kind of major electoral reform can happen in California because of the citizen initiative procedure. It's always interesting to see what bubbles up through this process; until and unless we adopt such a procedure at the federal level (which I don't see (or hope to see) happening), major electoral reform for Congress or the Presidency remain a pipe dream.

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