A New Swipe At Party Politics?

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Political watchers know well that the single fastest growing, and most influential, group of Californians are those who decline to pick a party when they register to vote. As such, there may soon be a new push to reshape state elections in favor of non-partisan politics, while pushing the major parties to the side.

On Monday, an initiative was filed with the Attorney General's office to reinstate an "open primary" system in California, but one with some new twists. Those twists seek to resolve the problems with the 1996 system which was approved by California voters but later struck down by the courts.

The proponent of the measure is well known in California politics: Steve Peace, who served in the Legislature for almost two decades.

In a brief phone chat this morning, Peace said the initiative he filed is the exact same "open primary" system that now exists in the state of Washington -- one which was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year.

"We wanted to make sure we didn't deviate" from the Washington measure, said Peace, in order to ensure it would not be overturned by the courts if ultimately enacted by the voters.

The measure would return the June primary to an open system where any voter can choose any candidate, with the top two vote getters -- regardless of party -- then duking it out in November.

What makes the proposal intriguing is additional language that favors non-partisan politics. First, Californians who register to vote would no longer be considered Democrats or Republicans or any other party. And second, candidates would be able to opt out of identifying themselves as belonging to a political party, potentially allowing them to tap into the growing number of voters who identify as "independent."

The system doesn't mean there won't be candidates with a "D" or "R" beside their name, but it obviously changes the dynamics of state elections. It also means that a November election could pit two non-partisan candidates against each other... thus leaving voters to consider two candidates solely on the issues that arise in that campaign.

As to the requirement that all voters are registered without a party preference, Peace thinks that's a big selling point. "Voters like that a lot," he said, because no longer will campaigns be able to target certain mailings and messages based on one's party affiliation. Peace says it also ensures a voter's privacy rights.

The California effort has a long ways to go. Peace says he now works with an organization called the California Independent Voter Project, but that the group won't be the one pushing this initiative through the signature-gathering process; rather, the hope is that a public conversation about the proposal will generate its own group of supporters who will come forward.

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new California Politics & Government Desk. He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades, serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and most recently as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. In 2014, he was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.

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