Electoral-System Anxiety Bubbles Up in Initiatives

Posted September 3, 2004 at 6:29pm

Has full-bore partisanship and insider control of politics driven voters to strike back at the political class?

A recent AARP survey of baby boomers conducted by Roper ASW found that a striking 56 percent of voters between the ages of 40 and 57 said America needs a strong third party.

This sentiment hasn’t morphed into action everywhere. But in a handful of states this fall, initiatives to break the control of parties and political insiders are making an impact on statewide ballots.

The idea of using initiatives and referenda to reshape the electoral process is nothing new. Efforts to term limit lawmakers and to establish public financing of campaigns have been passed (and at times rejected) for the past decade. Initiatives to expand voter access, such as allowing registration on Election Day, have been placed on ballots as well.

And in Arizona in 2000, voters even waded into the Byzantine world of redistricting, choosing to take map-drawing powers out of the hands of legislators and giving it instead to a bipartisan commission.

This year, activists who are dissatisfied with the electoral system have a fresh crop of ideas. While these proposals have been shaped by local factors, analysts say that each feeds into a growing national disenchantment with the contours of today’s political system. In quick succession, American voters have witnessed the bitter Florida recount; the contentiousness surrounding the upgrade of outdated voting systems; the off-cycle “re-redistricting” efforts by Republicans in Texas and Colorado; and continued rancor between the two parties in Congress and in the presidential race.

“People are getting frustrated about the whole concept of how we nominate and elect officials,” said Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of the nonpartisan California Target Book, which handicaps races in the state. Thanks to a bipartisan agreement after the 2000 Census, not one of California’s 53 House seats is at risk for either party this year, and the Legislature is only marginally more competitive.

“Voters here are feeling dominated by the partisans at both ends of the ideological spectrum,” Hoffenblum says. “That’s the queasy feeling that helped the recall of Gov. Gray Davis. If a recall of the Legislature had been on the same ballot, the voters would have booted them out, too. There’s a sense that the system is too broken and too controlled.”

This sentiment has aided California Proposition 62, which is set to appear on the November ballot. The measure would establish an all-party primary in California, with the top two finishers meeting for a runoff on Election Day. (Timing is the proposed system’s main difference with Louisiana’s unique system, which holds its all-party primary on Election Day and holds a runoff later. Also, California’s proposal would mandate a general election even if a candidate wins 50 percent of the primary vote.)

By allowing voters a wider choice of candidates in the primary — and by reducing the importance of party registration for voters and candidates — the system revives aspects of the “blanket” primary system that California used briefly in the late 1990s before the U.S. Supreme Court voided it. Under that system, which was approved by nearly 60 percent of voters in a 1996 initiative, the top Democrat and the top Republican to emerge from an all-party primary faced off in the general.

Backers of Proposition 62 paint their effort as a bipartisan, reform-minded reaction to the parties’ rigid control of state politics. While business groups have been among the staunchest supporters, key backing has come from independent voters and moderates in both parties. Middle-of-the-road candidates struggle to win under California’s current primary system, which has tended to favor strong ideologues on the left and right.

A group affiliated with moderate Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has touted the measure. Other supporters include Richard Riordan, a moderate Republican who served as mayor of Los Angeles; Steve Westly, a moderate Democrat who is currently state controller; Reps. Cal Dooley (D-Calif.) and Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) and former Rep. Leon Panetta (D-Calif.). Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, another moderate Republican who likely wouldn’t have won the state’s top office if he’d had to compete in a GOP primary rather than an all-party recall, has said kind words about the initiative in media interviews, but has not yet endorsed the proposal.

In an odd-bedfellows alliance, the measure is opposed by the two major parties in California and some smaller parties, as well as by Common Cause and the American Civil Liberties Union. Critics argue that the all-party primary is unlikely to diversify the Legislature and could “wipe out” minor parties in the process, said Richard Winger, editor of San Francisco-based Ballot Access News.

Lawmakers who oppose Proposition 62 placed Prop. 60, a separate measure, on the November ballot; it would enshrine the current primary system. Whichever measure gets more votes in November will prevail, though legal challenges after the election remain possible.

‘A National Feeling’

Long before most voters knew much about the measure, early independent polls had Prop. 62 winning more than 50 percent support. While Prop. 62 has distinct California roots, “it feeds into a national feeling,” said Samantha Stevens, campaign manager for Californians for an Open Primary. “In California, we set the precedent for the rest of the nation, so we’re probably taking a big step.”

In Washington state, voters will weigh a similar plan called Initiative 872. Washington, like California, used to have a blanket primary — for 70 years, until the Supreme Court voided it along with California’s. The system proposed for Washington would mirror California’s, except that voters in Washington state would not register by party, thus continuing existing policy.

“Fundamentally, it’s a question of how much control and influence the voters have versus the political parties,” said Don Whiting, a former state elections director who is volunteering for the Washington state Grange, the farmers’ organization that sponsored the original blanket primary effort decades ago and is doing so again.

“There’s no two ways about it: This kind of primary subordinates political party organizations to the voters in ways that don’t happen in other states,” Whiting said. “In a sense, the Grange’s position is that we want the voters to decide who goes on the ballot.”

While some party officials and officeholders oppose the blanket primary, analysts say that Washington voters’ long familiarity with the format makes its chances of passage even better than for Prop. 62 in California.

“People are used to roaming the ballot,” said Seattle Post-Intelligencer political columnist Joel Connelly. “I would give it a greater than even chance of passing.”

In addition, former Oregon Secretary of State Phil Keisling has begun to consider pushing for a similar open-primary system in his state, perhaps for the 2006 ballot, said Nick Tobey, co-chairman and author of the California open-primary initiative. “This could be the beginnings of a West Coast primary-election phenomenon,” he said.

Nepotism Backlash

In Alaska, the battle also boils down to a clash between voters and party insiders. The story began in 2002, when then-Sen. Frank Murkowski (R) was running for governor. The Republican-dominated Legislature passed a law to prevent the outgoing governor (then Democrat Tony Knowles) from making a temporary Senatorial appointment. When Murkowski won the governorship, he appointed his daughter Lisa to his old Senate seat.

Voters across the spectrum were so outraged by the use of raw partisan power to serve seemingly nepotistic ends that twice as many voters as were needed signed a petition to place an initiative that would require Senate seats to be filled by special election only. Sensing the measure’s popularity, the Legislature, still dominated by the GOP, passed a measure to enact a special election, but only after a brief temporary appointment is made by the governor. The idea was to moot the proposed initiative and keep the issue off the fall ballot, where it could hamper Lisa Murkowski’s re-election bid.

But Knowles had decided to take on Murkowski for the Senate seat, so Democrats in the state kept pushing. Recently, Democrats convinced Alaska’s courts that the new law was substantively different than the initiative because it still gave a leg up in the special election to the governor’s choice. So the matter will be sent to the voters in November.

“Both geographically and politically, you can’t get any farther away from Florida than Alaska,” said Matt McKenna, a spokesman for Knowles’ Senate campaign. “But one in 12 Alaskans signed that petition, so it’s clear to us how Alaskans feel about wanting to choose their next U.S. Senator.”

College Dropouts

In Colorado, the effort to change how the state apportions its votes in the presidential electoral college is, like the open-primary system, designed to break down the “red-blue” divide, say its backers. Once the winner-take-all system is eliminated, Democratic presidential candidates would have a reason to campaign in heavily Republican states, and vice versa. Democratic state Sen. Ron Tupa, a supporter, notes that the measure eschews the system used in Maine and Nebraska, which allots electoral votes based on Congressional districts. Those districts, he notes, can be meddled with by party insiders.

The Colorado proposal “reaffirms one man, one vote, and gives people incentive to vote,” said Rick Ridder, a Democratic political consultant based in Denver. To those who argue that such a system would hamper the state’s bargaining power by reducing the electoral bounty it can dangle in front of presidential candidates, Ridder responds that the critics “give greater credence to visits on tarmacs than assuring that the franchise is amply represented.”

Compared to the open-primary measures in California and Washington, the Colorado effort seems like more of an uphill battle. It has not only attracted immediate denunciations from Republicans and spawned a GOP-led opposition group called Coloradans Against a Really Stupid Idea, but it has also attracted critical editorials in the Rocky Mountain News and The Denver Post. And most Democratic officials have yet to speak out aggressively for it.

Ironically, part of the measure’s challenge is that some observers view it as too partisan: It was written to be retroactive to the 2004 presidential election that it will be sharing the ballot with. If passed, it could provide Democratic nominee John Kerry — currently an underdog in Colorado — with four electoral votes he would not otherwise get. That’s exactly the electoral-college margin that could have propelled Democrat Al Gore to victory in 2000.

It doesn’t help that the initiative’s sponsor is an Arizonan. Colorado’s electoral-college effort doesn’t seem to be “bubbling up from local frustration,” said Independent pollster Floyd Ciruli. “It seems like more of a strategy by some Democrats to take away one red state.”

Ironically, Ciruli suggests that a measure to outlaw partisan redistricting would have had a strong chance of passage this year, given the recent battle in the state over an off-year Republican redistricting effort that was later struck down by the courts.

Coming Attractions

Regardless of how these initiatives fare this fall, other reforms could be in the pipeline for 2006. One creative, if quirky, idea being floated in Arizona would award $1 million in unclaimed lottery winnings per election cycle to a randomly selected voter, as a way of boosting voter turnout.

“It’s capitalism at its best,” said the idea’s sponsor, Mark Osterloh, a Tucson-based activist who ran unsuccessfully for governor as a Democrat in 2002. “You’re basically building in an incentive.”

Rob Richie — who heads the Center for Voting and Democracy, a group that promotes alternative election systems — said he expects a broader push in 2006 for “instant runoff voting,” in which voters rank their choices on a single ballot. Residents of San Francisco approved such a system by ballot initiative and will be using it this fall.

Given this year’s presidential race, instant-runoff voting is a reform that could attract some interest. Among other things, it would allow Ralph Nader voters to register their frustration with the Democratic Party without necessarily taking away votes from Kerry.

“I believe that the frustration remains very real, even if we only see measures of it now and again,” Richie said. He added that the momentum will only swell “if we have another obviously failed election in 2004, which is not at all implausible.”