Yes: Candidates Will Have to Appeal to Independents


By Lou Cannon
Special to Calbuzz

California’s political system is broken. Hamstrung by unbending partisanship and the requirement of a two-thirds vote to pass a budget or a tax increase, a dysfunctional Legislature has persistently failed to deal with the state’s pressing problems or its debilitating structural deficit.

Reformers have responded with grandiose proposals for change, such as a constitutional convention, which have come to naught. Since the Legislature and the major political parties resist any and all reforms, Californians who want to take back their state have no choice except to make a series of incremental changes through the initiative process.

The first useful step in this process came in 2008, when voters approved Proposition 11, which will take redistricting out of the hands of the legislators and vest it in a citizen’s commission. The new districts will be drawn after this year’s census for the 2012 election. The next step is to pass Proposition 14, opening up elections so that the top two candidates in the primary, regardless of party, would advance to the general election. This provision would apply to most state and federal elective offices but not to presidential primaries.

Proposition 11 and Proposition 14 are best understood as companion pieces. Proposition 11 was needed because legislators protect their careers at the expense of the rest of us by gerrymandering their districts to protect themselves and their parties. The cozy, one-sided districts they created assured that there would be no competition in the general election. This effectively disenfranchised independents (known as “declines-to-state” in California), most of whom do not participate in the primaries. It also tended to drive both major parties to extremes.

Liberals have a disproportionate advantage in the Democratic primaries, conservatives an even more decisive edge in most GOP primaries. Moderates in either party who might appeal to independents in the general election had so little chance in the primaries that most of them chose not to run. As a result, many Democratic officeholders tend to be reflexively liberal—or at least in thrall to the public employee unions who finance them. Many Republicans, on the other hand, are rigid conservatives who stand ready to block even the most reasonable budget if it contains a whiff of a tax hike.

For the past decade, budget compromises have occurred only when a GOP legislator broke with his party on tax issues. The occasional courageous Republican who did so incurred the wrath of his party and often the loss of his job.

Anyone old enough (as I am) to remember the creativity of the California legislature in the mid-20th Century, when it was acclaimed as the best in the nation, can’t help being appalled by the present collection of ideologues and party hacks. Proposition 14 could change this by greatly increasing the number of independent-minded moderates in the candidate pool. Every voter would receive the same ballot, putting independents on an equal footing with party regulars.

Such a ballot might also encourage the parties to forth candidates of broad appeal to assure themselves a spot on the November ballot. There is, of course, no special virtue to being a moderate. On any given issue moderates can be as wrong (or right) as liberals or conservatives. But Proposition 14 would level the playing field. Polls show that some 40 percent of the voters consider themselves to be moderates, and they are conspicuously underrepresented in Sacramento. Proposition 14 is an incremental reform that would give sensible centrists a chance.

Lou Cannon of Santa Barbara is the foremost biographer of Ronald Reagan in the world, and a former political writer for the Washington Post and the San Jose Mercury News.

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There are 9 comments for this post

  1. avatar adrian_s says:

    Mr. Cannon, I must sincerely disagree with the conclusions you have drawn up, and without a career in political journalism or public record, I oppose this ballot measure *strictly* on the basis of my independent affiliation.

    As a registered DTS, I am supposed to be one of the main beneficiaries of Prop 14’s passage. But let’s call this prop out for what it is. It’s a reversal of decades of electoral reform.

    Like so many supporters of Prop 14., you make an impassioned plea to people’s emotional faculties, brimming with nostalgia and hope, while ignoring the unpleasant realities.

    -Prop 14 has been called a companion to Prop 11. This couldn’t be further from the truth. I have not seen one person in any mainstream outlet even hint at what Prop 14 could do to the redistricting process. In essence it would NEGATE any positive changes made by Prop 11, and in some races force voters to choose between two members of the same party – which is gerrymandering plain and simple.

    That fact alone should give anyone pause before they call Prop 14. democratic or open. But hardly any supporter of Prop 14. mentions the “top two”-style primaries in Washington and Lousiana and how they eliminated third parties, dramatically reduced incumbent turnover, and even helped extremists like David Duke to game the system.

    Prop 14. doesn’t boost moderate or independent candidates’ credibility; only the people with deep enough pockets to run a yearlong general campaign will have a shot. That or they will take more lobbyist money to fill the void.

    We should have learned our lesson after a full-time legislature, 2/3s budgeting, and term limits all failed to bring the change we wanted to Sacramento. As you can see from those initiatives, populism can sometimes be a very lethal force. We would be foolish if we simply bought the conventional wisdom that what’s bad for political parties is good for us. That’s just lazy thinking, and lazy thinking is NOT going to be the cure-all for Sacramento’s dysfunction.

  2. avatar Moderate Democrat says:

    Because polarization until now has been working so well?

  3. avatar Boyd says:

    Polarization? With a 12 year Democatic lock on 2/3 of the legislature and a moribund Republican party it looks pretty unipolar to me. Blame comes easy when it is that cut and dry.

  4. avatar scaramouche says:

    Thank you Mr. Cannon but while a reform of the redistricting by turning it over to a citizen panel is better than leaving it in the hands of the incumbents, a reform of the primary process envisioned under Prop 14 is misguided.

    Isn’t it funny how the independents – especially outside of California – seem locked into the role of going back and forth, tossing the country into uncertainty (with Obama) after it affirms a more traditional path (Bush and Reagan).

    Shouldn’t they be asked to form their own party and influence the public discourse with their own political philosophy – winning or losing on their beliefs and proposed courses of action?

    Finally, I thought that a party, under a such a system as that imposed by Prop 14, would then have the right to remove its primary selection from the state election process and elect its candidates via different methods – caucuses, etc.

    • avatar adrian_s says:

      The very point of declining to state an affiliation with any political party would contradict independents forming their own. The only reason that they would have to do so would be if the new party’s platform matched 80% or more of their ideals. And no two independents are alike.

      Even then, there’s other things to take into consideration. I for one, could have registered as a Libertarian, but a) their ideological radicalism is not for me, and b) they don’t run their party like it’s a party; they run it like a redneck thinktank.

      Independents are vital to this country’s democratic process. Can you imagine how much MORE partisan Congress would be without them?

  5. avatar anamax says:

    > Many Republicans, on the other hand, are rigid conservatives who stand ready to block even the most reasonable budget if it contains a whiff of a tax hike.

    At this point, any tax increases ARE unreasonable.

    CA’s state govt has enough revenue to pay for what it spent in 2008. If there’s something new that needs doing, it can be paid for by cutting things.

    And, if you think things are tight now, wait until the pension crisis hits. If CA’s political class was serious, it would start cutting now to save for that, roll back future promises, and start apologizing. It won’t, and when the crisis hits, it will whine that we don’t trust them.

    P.J. O’Rourke said that “giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.” In CA’s case, that’s insulting to teenage boys.

  6. avatar anamax says:

    If the legislature and special interests really opposed Prop 14, why aren’t they running any ads against it?

    The Prop 14 scheme has been tried. It resulted in less voting and greater incumbency re-election rates. Why will CA be any different?

  7. avatar Koblog says:

    Under Prop 14 logic, why bother having primaries at all? Save money, skip the primary and only have the general. By the way, that’s a stupid idea.

    Primaries are run so our political parties can figure out their strongest candidate, not to make those who refuse to join a party feel “included.”

    If independents feel ostracized or disenfranchised in the primaries, JOIN A PARTY and participate. Otherwise, wait until the General Election.

  8. avatar Koblog says:

    Thank you Mr. Cannon. This article has convinced me to VOTE NO on Prop 14.

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