Prop 14: The Agent Of Change?

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Getty Images

Photo: Getty Images

It seems hard to argue with the conclusion that the passage of Proposition 14, whether you love it or hate it, would change -- and likely diminish -- the role of party politics in California.

In its place, it would install an electoral system that favors the state's unpredictable independent voters and... quite possibly... the spending of even more more money on elections than ever before.

Over these last two days on The California Report, I've been reporting on some of the larger systemic elements related to the Prop 14 open primary proposal -- part one of the series aired Thursday on our morning newscast, part two airs this afternoon on our weekly newsmagazine.

(Audio links at the bottom of this posting, after the jump.)

Say what you will about the cast of characters who actually placed the proposal on next Tuesday's ballot -- and plenty good and bad has been said -- but the real architect of Prop 14 was interested in the issue long before Democrats and Governor Schwarzenegger decided to play Let's Make A Deal to get the February 2009 budget plan in place and, in the process, grabbed on to the proposal to entice the final supporter.

That architect is Steve Peace, a colorful ex-legislator who drafted the first version of the ballot measure in 2008. Peace says he's still a Democrat; if so, he's a Democrat who seems convinced the political party system is a major problem. In a phone interview last week, he called the two major parties "empty and mindless vessels" that have no longer have any interest in the old fashioned politics of persuading voters.

"They don’t want people who are actually thinking going to the ballot box," he told me. "They just want their base voters."

State of California

Photo: State of California

And so Peace, using the open primary system recently enacted in the state of Washington, drew up a ballot measure that -- according to the polls -- is headed for victory on Tuesday. And the more you know about Peace's current big project, the more you realize that Prop 14 should probably be called the 'Independent Voter Constitutional Amendment.'

Peace is currently co-chair of a nonprofit called the California Independent Voter Network, which bills itself as dedicated to all "independent minded voter[s], regardless of party." The former state senator says that the two major parties have stifled all competition in the electoral process.

"I don't believe," he says, "that I as a Democrat should get an advantage over John Smith as an independent or Joe Blow as as a Republican. We all ought to play by the same rules."

As such, Prop 14 opens the doors -- more so, perhaps than even California's now defunct version of the open primary -- to all takers (in June, that is; November's election would be dramatically downsized to just two candidates). And it would seem to put voters registered as independents (technically those who 'decline to state' a party preference) in the catbird seat. While independent voters are now 20% of the statewide electorate, they are found in even higher percentages in many legislative and congressional districts. Sure, they can currently vote in the primaries of Democrats and Republicans; but under Prop 14, they could pick a Republican for governor, a Democrat for the U.S. Senate, and so on. So, too, could all voters.

That's a real free-for-all, a ballot measure that's got clear supporters and opponents who both are making predictions that may be overstated. Two sharp researchers have weighed in on the Prop 14 open primary: Eric McGhee of the Public Policy Institute of California and Molly Milligan of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles. They both concede that competition could increase, more moderates might be elected -- mainly to the Legislature -- and voters would appear to have more choices under Prop 14.

But the measure will not, they say, alter the nature of politics. "We're not changing the constellation of interest groups," said McGhee. "We're changing the rules by which they play." He says those players will likely adapt their game plans... which means some parts of politics that voters seem to dislike will not go away.

PPIC's McGhee (his report is here) and CGS's Milligan (hers is here) both believe campaign spending will go up under a Prop 14 electoral system. They also both believe that the Prop 14 campaign's promise of a new era of moderate lawmakers and bipartisanship is a bit of an oversell.

"There are many, many factors that go into [casting a] vote," says Molly Milligan. "And ideology is just one of them."

Perhaps the most intriguing possible impact of Prop 14 is that it could help protect incumbent politicians who cast a vote that angers the party faithful (can you think of real life examples of such angst)? That's because, as both researchers point out, incumbents still have a huge leg up when it comes to being a familiar name or face to the voters; if an incumbent can parlay a controversial vote into new cross-party support, it may be harder for the party faithful to extract the ultimate political punishment.

"They can defend themselves better," says Eric McGhee. "And maybe that's all we need to see more bipartisanship and pragmatism in the Capitol."

It's also easy to see why elections will become more costly. In part one of my reporting, I traveled to the 20th Assembly district for a check in on the hot open seat primary between Democrats Bob Wieckowski and Garrett Yee. Sure, there's a Republican on the ballot, too, in this Bay Area district centered in Fremont. But Democrats hold an almost 30 point registration advantage there... so let's just be honest: Wieckowski or Yee is headed to Sacramento in January.

But only one of them can win on June 8. Under Prop 14, however, they would likely continue their battle into the fall... and that's where not only Republicans, but the 28% of district voters who are independents might come into play. It would also mean more money from the interest groups that are already battling over these two Democrats. As of Thursday, almost $569,000 had been spent on independent expenditure efforts in AD 20 -- unions and trial lawyers largely for Wieckowski, charter schools, insurance, and real estate groups on behalf of Yee. You can bet they'd find the money to keep going under the extended campaign likely should Prop 14 become law.

Still, some will say that's better than the status quo of low primary turnout. As Wieckowski said in an interview last week, the winner on June 8 may only receive about 16,000 votes... out of the district's almost 197,000 registered voters.

The major parties will no doubt find ways around Prop 14 (Republicans are already saying as much in the press), but the minor parties will, no doubt, suffer. Should their candidate not be one of the top two vote getters in June -- an unlikely case in most races -- that party will no longer appear on the November ballot. Also left out of Prop 14 -- write-in candidates. The measure's architect, Steve Peace, maintains that both problems can be addressed by the Legislature and governor modifying the state's election's code.

Perhaps so, but getting a Legislature full of major party members to help the little guys seems unlikely. And those same small parties dispute the notion that what the state really needs now is more moderate pols. "We need people with new ideas," said Debra Rieger of the Peace & Freedom Party at a recent anti-Prop 14 event. "We do not need many flavors of vanilla... more moderates won't bring us change."

Prop 14's ghostwriter, Steve Peace, would probably agree that politicians with new ideas are needed. But he sees that as independents... and that's the other part of the Prop 14 story, the part that happens after June 8. Peace and his organization have started a push to change state election law to make it easier for an independent candidate to run for office. Currently, non-party affiliated candidates have to collect thousands of voter signatures in a small amount of time -- compared to the handful of signatures needed by someone who belongs to an officially recognized party. The Legislature's only independent legislator, Assemblymember Juan Arambula (I-Fresno, though he was elected as a Democrat) says the "deck is stacked" in favor of the parties. Last week, the California Independent Voter Network called on the Legislature to amend the law... or face possible legal action later in 2010.

"We have to join a party," laments Peace. "Otherwise, we're second class citizens."

And so as voters consider Prop 14 next week, it's worth keeping in mind that the measure is likely the beginning, not the end, of such calls for electoral reform. If that's the case, might we see the state's most iconic non-conforming politician take up some of these same causes once he leaves office next year?

Just a guess on my part. But remember, independent voters have largely been the true core supporters of the incumbent governor. He's a key supporter of the open primary, step #1 on the journey... it wouldn't seem that far-fetched for him to continue that journey in the years to come.

Prop 14 Part I (Aired Thursday, June 3)

Prop 14 Part II (Airs Friday, June 4)

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia 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. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.
  • Ellen Aprill

    You report that charter schools are spending money on behalf of Yee’s campaign for the 20th Assembly district. Most California charter schools are tax-exempt under Internal Revenue Code section 501(c)(3). Section 501(c)(3) forbids participation or intervention in “any political campaign on behalf or (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.” If the charter schools involved are indeed section 501(c)(3) organizations and are spending the organization’s own money on this campaign, they are putting their tax exemption at risk.

  • John Myers

    A fair point which merits a clarification: organizations that support charter school issues and expansion. Thanks for pointing that out.

  • Robert Chang

    Nowhere here does it mention what Steve Peace is most famous for… forcing the State Senate to go through the “Steve Peace Death March” for energy deregulation. Steve Peace was the man who was responsible for rolling blackouts and skyrocketing energy rates, including “competition surcharges” we still pay today. Why this man still has any credibility with anyone beats me.