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Tom Zirpoli: Non-partisan elections hold promise

An important political experiment started in California last week that may change the way we run primary elections across America.

The people of California voted for Proposition 14 in 2010 which, according to reporter Daniel Wood, "alters the way that elections will be conducted for all congressional and statewide offices." The new law, called The Top Two Candidates Open Primary Act, took effect in January 2011 and was employed for the first time on June 5.

Instead of a Democratic and Republican primary contest, California held its first nonpartisan primary last Tuesday. Wood reports that "voters can cast their ballots in the primary election for any candidate, without regard to the political party of either the candidate or the voter. Candidates can choose whether or not to have their political party affiliation displayed on the ballot."

Traditional primary elections are noted for low turnout and for the nomination of the most extreme candidates from each party. The most liberal Democrats and the most conservative Republicans are usually the ones who show up for primary contests.

With the nonpartisan primary in California, all the candidates have the opportunity to sell themselves to all voters, not just the ultra-liberal or ultra-conservative members of their specific party.

With the Open Primary Act, when the primary election is over, the two top candidates picked by everyone compete for the office, regardless of their party affiliation. It doesn't matter if the two top candidates are Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, or Independent; the two candidates earning the most voter support then participate in a run-off in November.

The goal of this new procedure is to attract and elect more moderate candidates. When a candidate has to appeal to all voters, they tend to be less extreme in their positions. The hope is that the new primary system will reduce the significant amount of polarization in American politics.

We all know that once candidates get through the primary process they tend to migrate or evolve their positions to a more widely accepted and moderate approach. Candidates do this to attract voters from the other party and, significantly, independent voters who ultimately decide many elections today.

"Proposition 14 prohibits political parties from nominating candidates in a primary," Wood said, "although political parties will be allowed to endorse, support, or oppose candidates."

California Secretary of State Debra Bowens explained that with the new system, all the candidates "are listed on one ballot and only the top two vote-getters in the primary election - regardless of party preference - move to the general election." Each candidate on the ballot may still indicate his or her preference or lack of preference for a political party. This makes it easier for independent candidates to get on the ballots and may make it easier for independent candidates to appeal to a wider audience of voters in a general election.

Another interesting aspect of this new system is that only the two top primary vote-getters may participate in the general election for an office. Write-in candidates, for example, while free to participate in the primary election with everyone else, are not allowed in the general election if they have not received the most or second most votes in the primary election.

How all of this works will be very interesting to watch. I think the process has the potential to cut down on the extreme polarization of American politics. It is certainly worthy of our review.

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