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by Harriet Hoffman & Jim Mangia
Saturday, Oct. 30, 2004 at 2:03 PM
firstname.lastname@example.org 415-393-9970 870 Market Street, Suite 419, San Francisco, CA 94102
California Prop 62 has provoked a mighty controversy in the Democratic and Republican Parties – where reformers supporting Prop 62 have clashed with party bosses who want to maintain the old order. And, it has also provoked a controversy within the independent movement, where reform independents are backing Prop 62 while the third party establishment is aggressively opposing it. . .
This November, California voters have an opportunity to vote “Yes” on Proposition 62, the Voter Choice Open Primary Initiative. If Prop 62 passes, the current system of closed primary elections will be replaced with nonpartisan open elections in which all voters, regardless of party, will be able to vote at every stage of the process.
Prop 62 has provoked a mighty controversy in the Democratic and Republican Parties – where reformers supporting Prop 62 have clashed with party bosses who want to maintain the old order. And, it has also provoked a controversy within the independent movement, where reform independents are backing Prop 62 while the third party establishment is aggressively opposing it.
Approximately 3 million “decline to state” voters, 20% of the electorate in California, are disenfranchised by the current party-controlled primaries. Under the closed primary system, independent voters are treated as second class citizens and denied the right to participate in first round voting – usually the decisive round. Since the Democratic and Republican legislature carved districts to be automatically Democrat or Republican, partisan primaries determine the outcome in all but a handful of races. Passing Prop 62 would bust up this “gentlemen’s agreement” and open the door to competition.
Prop 62 also opens the door to independent voters having significantly greater influence. How? Because in an open primary system, all candidates will need to build alliances with independent voters to maximize their chances of making it to the general election. That change will increase the urgency of embracing independent voters’ agenda for structural political reform.
Yet, in spite of this clear opportunity for empowering independent voters, the third party establishment – leaders of the Greens, the Libertarians, the Peace and Freedom Party -- vocally oppose Prop 62. For them, Prop 62 will mean the end of a guaranteed spot on the ballot, except for presidential elections which will remain on the “party-line” system. The third parties argue that such a loss “disempowers” independents, but what they really mean is that Prop 62 will change the way parties -- minor and major -- practice politics.
Until the last 10 years, the prevailing philosophy in third party, or independent politics, has been to focus on building alternative parties which are modeled on the majors and which espouse a particular ideology. Under this traditional model “independent” third parties could win a nominal voice in the process, i.e. a spot on the ballot, but almost never impacted either on outcome or the public agenda. The “market” for their ideological views and fringe status rarely got above 5%. At the same time, though, the numbers of independent voters – those who do not want to align with any party and who reject the culture of partisanship – has been growing. The third parties have not been in a position to represent that growing, but disenfranchised, bloc because they are pro-party, just as the Republicans and Democrats are.
Although 35% of all Americans now identify as independents (CNN/USA Today), minor party presidential candidates received only 3% of the vote in 2000. A new anti-partisan and non-ideological approach to organizing and representing these voters without building a party has become highly effective because it responds to independents’ desire to break out of the partisan box.
The vast majority of independent voters are looking for ways to participate in the electoral process without having to join a party or vote a party line. In fact, independents don’t trust parties and party insiders to make their decisions for them. They want to be free to vote for the best candidate, regardless of party. They want to be free to partner in fluid coalitions that can pick apart special interest control of government and policymaking. While independents span the entire left-center-right ideological spectrum, the vast majority agrees that our political system is broken and the political culture is a disaster. That’s why as many as 80% of independents support Proposition 62, even while the state’s third parties are loudly opposing it.
Rich Winger, a ballot access expert and Libertarian Party member, recently argued in the San Francisco Bay Guardian “our California legislature is very diverse.... but that very diversity guarantees that every significant group in California has a spokesperson in the legislature.” Winger, now a leading spokesperson for the “No on 62” Committee, apparently doesn’t regard the state’s millions of independent voters (who certainly have no spokespersons in the legislature) as a significant group.
The open primary is hardly a panacea for our ailing electoral process. However, the proposal establishes conditions in which new things can happen and new voices can emerge. It levels the playing field and acknowledges the independent voter as a growing political force. Independents would have a significant – if not decisive – role in the first round of voting, thus becoming a critical constituency. As the non-partisan, open primary begins to weaken the control now exerted by the party machines, reformers within the major parties will have a need (as well as an opportunity) to form new kinds of beneficial alliances in which independents play an increasingly influential role.
California’s minor parties have a chance to help refresh our democracy by backing an electoral reform measure with the potential to shake up the status quo. Instead they have lined up with the Democrat and Republican Party machines in what appears to be a cynical attempt to ensure their own self-perpetuation.
As a step toward a more democratic and inclusive process, however, the Committee for an Independent Voice and the majority of California’s independent voters are joining with reformers within the Democrat and Republican parties in a new coalition to pass Proposition 62. The minor parties would burnish their credentials as champions of outsider voices by supporting, not preventing, the emergence of a new political design.
Jim Mangia is the Co-Chair and Harriet Hoffman is the Statewide Coordinator for the Committee for an Independent Voice, an association of California independents that advocates on behalf of independent voters and their interests. For more information go to www.civca.org
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