|Office of the Chancellor / Public Affairs||
Tuesday, June 22, 2004
San Francisco Chronicle 6-22-04
Senate elections bill undermines open primary ballot initiative
Sacramento -- A stealth bill designed to thwart a November ballot measure reinstating open primary elections shot through the state Senate on Monday, amid charges that the major parties were trying to tighten their grip on California's election system.
Until one week ago, the bill, SCA18, created a commission to oversee electoral district reapportionment. But in a tactic known in the Capitol as a "gut and amend," the contents were stripped out on June 14, and new language was inserted that, if approved by voters, would amend the state constitution to keep the current primary election system in place.
The measure was heard as a special order of business in two committee hearings Monday morning, and was quickly passed to the Senate floor, where it also enjoyed a wide margin of bipartisan support.
Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter (Kern County), called the rush of the bill "pretty sad." Florez was the only Democrat to vote against the bill, and he criticized the haste with which the bill was approved.
"This is just a political play," he said. "This is the kind of thing that gives rise to the problems in political parties. They're trying to unplug something that was put on the ballot by voters."
Measure author Sen. Ross Johnson, R-Irvine, denied it was an attempt to undercut the other ballot question and said it was being handled this way merely to beat a Thursday deadline for legislators to pass bills placing measures on the November ballot.
"It reaffirms the importance of the primary system California has had in place for more than 100 years," Johnson testified during one of the committee hearings.
The bill probably will set the stage for a political and legal battle in the months leading up to the November election. Critics of the move called it an attempt to confuse voters and said they will pursue every means available to fight it -- including the courts, if necessary.
Though it is supported by both parties, the bill puts Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in a difficult position. He has previously criticized such legislative maneuvering, and the open primary initiative on the ballot is co- sponsored by his education secretary and friend, Richard Riordan.
The open primary system was first approved by voters in 1996 and was used in the 1998 and 2000 election cycles. But the U.S. Supreme Court subsequently found it unconstitutional and it was thrown out.
Backers of the concept -- a broad array of people who feel the current system favors party ideologues over moderates -- have placed a measure on the November ballot that would reinstate the open primary, albeit with changes they hope will help it pass constitutional muster.
The measure would allow voters to vote for primary candidates regardless of political registration and would place the top two vote-getters for each office in each district on the general election ballot -- regardless of whether both are from the same party or none are from the major parties.
A recent Field Poll found that 50 percent of voters supported the measure, compared with 37 percent opposed.
If SCA18 passes the Assembly and is signed by the governor, it would place a competing measure on the November ballot that would keep in place the current primary electoral system, in which the top primary vote-getter from each party is ensured a place in the general election.
In essence, the two measures would be in direct competition with one another. If both measures are approved by voters, whichever one garners the most votes will become law.
Supporters of the initiative already on the ballot say major-party politicians are using the legislative system to undermine popular will and say the legislation further confuses the issue because the language also dedicates revenue from the sale of surplus state property to pay down California's bonded indebtedness.
"It is certainly being rushed through without debate," said Kevin Spillane, a consultant to Californians for an Open Primary, which has championed the initiative. "This is the Legislature at its worst. This is politics at its most cynical. This is why the Legislature is held in such low esteem."