Will California's Proposition 14 decrease the quality of democracy?

By Juliet Carnoy ‘13Contributing Writer

Proposition 14, also known as the California Top Two Primaries Act, was a proposition on the June 2010 ballot. It passed with 53.8% approval and was approved as a legislatively-referred constitutional amendment (a ballot measure placed on a state’s ballot because the state legislature voted to put it before the voters). But what is Proposition 14, and why is it important?

A few basics: Proposition 14 requires that candidates of all parties for state office run in a single, open primary. In this primary, listing candidates’ party leanings is optional, and the top two candidates with the highest number of votes will face each other in the general election regardless of whether they are of the same party.

This amendment has powerful implications for California’s party system. Yet from where did this state constitutional amendment originate?

The concept of a single primary was first developed in Washington State in 1935. Since then, various versions of the single primary were enacted in Alaska (1947), Louisiana (1975), and California (1996). In 1996, Proposition 198 replaced California’s closed primary nominating system with a blanket primary. This was challenged by both Democrat and Republican Parties in California Democratic Party et al. v. Jones, et al (2000). The California Democratic Party claimed that Proposition 198 violated a political party’s first amendment right of association. However, the District Court found that the statute was not in conflict with the First Amendment and The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court decision.

The case ascended to the Supreme Court, which overruled the lower courts’ decisions and confirmed that Proposition 198 violated political parties’ first amendment rights, and closed primaries were reinstated in California. But in 2010, Proposition 14 was approved as a legislatively-referred constitutional amendment.

Why is Proposition 14 constitutional while Proposition 198 was not? The answer lies in the fact that Proposition 14 is modeled after Washington’s Top Two primary system, a new form of single primary which was held constitutional by the Supreme Court in Washington State Grange v. Washington State Republican Party, 552 U.S. 442 (2008).

The difference between an open primary, a blanket primary, and a ‘top two’ primary is that in an open primary, voters may choose to vote in the primary of either party, but they must vote in that party’s primary for all races on that ballot. Each party’s primary winner advances to the general election in a multi-party field. In contrast, in a blanket primary, voters may choose a candidate from any party in every race, and all parties’ primary winners advance to the general election. In a top two primary, the nominees from all political parties, including multiple candidates from the same party, campaign in a single primary election. Then, the two candidates with the most votes compete in the November election.

However, the current controversy surrounding Proposition 14 is not centered on its constitutionality, as it was in the past. Rather, the contestation is a result of the uncertainty regarding the consequences Proposition 14 might have on voter turnout and minority parties. Opponents predict that Proposition 14 will decrease voter turnout due to lack of plurality, as write-ins will be eliminated and only two candidates will contend in the general election. Further, they view the law as unconstitutional since candidates may only list their party preference if they belong to a ballot-qualified party (such as Republican, Democrat, Green, or Libertarian). The belief that Proposition 14 will debilitate and obstruct minority parties from getting their names on the ballot by instituting additional regulations compounded with the Proposition’s prohibition for write-in ballots is seen as restrictive and discriminatory against minority party access.

In contrast, supporters of Proposition 14 believe that by running more moderate candidates who appeal to a larger cross section of the electorate, an open primary will increase competition and enhance voter turnout. The notion that low voter turnout and party polarization are dichotomous in nature has led to the hypothesis that reducing party polarization will in turn lead to higher rates of turnout. The objective of Proposition 14 is thus to make elections more competitive by appealing to and encouraging non-partisan and independent constituents to vote in California’s assembly primaries and general elections.

So, if elections are a means by which to tie citizens to their government, and public participation (let’s define that as voting) achieves that end, then the theory put forth by many political scientists that political parties have high-level mobilization power becomes integral for candidates running on a party platform. But will Proposition 14 lead to lower levels of party contestation by running candidates of the same party against each other in certain districts? And through this logic, will this result in lower levels of voter turnout in those districts? The proponent argument for Proposition 14 is that it will result in more moderate representatives in the California state government. However, even if Proposition 14 results in more moderate legislators, but these legislators were elected with a significant decrease in voter turnout, then does Proposition 14 hinder the quality of democracy by diminishing political participation? That is the million-dollar question.