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A Year for Desperate Measures

A Commentary by Debra J. Saunders

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies, has become my go-to guy for good-government issues. His wife, Joan, he recently confided, calls him "the Sisyphus of reform."

The analogy to the Greek mythological character -- whom the gods condemned to spend eternity pushing a rock up a hill, only to have it roll down before he reached the top -- seemed especially apt when I asked him to send me a list of the good-government propositions that were on the California ballot over the last decade. He quickly rattled off 15 propositions that were arguably -- some tenuously so -- reform-minded, seven of which voters passed.

No wonder, I thought, I've come down with a severe case of Reform Fatigue. Despite numerous attempts to fix a broken system, the California Legislature remains a pit of rancor, gridlock and dysfunction.

Both parties are represented by their extremes. The rare moderates used to meet in secret; now they look in the mirror. As a result, the Legislature has churned out bloated and unbalanced budgets because, well, that was the best Sacramento lawmakers could do.

California desperately needs lawmakers who can work together.

Enter Proposition 14: This measure on the June 8 ballot would end the party primary system by putting the two candidates who garner the most votes on the general election ballot. The measure would apply to all state and federal races except the presidency. Its goal is to elect more moderate lawmakers from both parties.

But can it deliver?

To tell the truth, it's a roll of the dice.

Supporter Jim Hartman, a Bay Area attorney and former chair of the Alameda County GOP Central Committee, told me something no proponent has ever said to me before. As he put it, "There's whimsy to it."

That is, Hartman acknowledged that the measure's success in delivering will depend on primary turnout under the new system and who is in the field.

In fact, he would prefer to see a "blanket primary" that would allow voters of any party to vote for one candidate in that candidate's party's primary. The problem, alas, is that while close to 60 percent of voters passed such a measure in 1996, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned it.

Reformers then had to concoct a measure that would get around the court's objection -- that the measure forced "political parties to associate with those who do not share their beliefs." They came up with Proposition 62, a 2004 ballot measure which, as a Center for Governmental Studies analysis noted, "proposed virtually the same changes to the election system" as Proposition 14.

One problem: 54 percent of California voters voted against it.

"They rejected it because they were tricked," Hartman said. The Legislature had put a "poison pill" measure -- which masqueraded as reform in a successful effort to confuse voters -- and that measure won.

Last year, then-Sen. (now Lt. Gov.) Abel Maldonado pressured legislative leaders to put a new Top Two measure on the ballot in exchange for his vote to pass the state budget -- and Proposition 14 was born. For Maldonado, an endangered moderate in the GOP, it was essentially an act of self-defense.

But the measure is not without risk. As the CGS analysis found, "candidates will have to spend at least twice what they now spend in the June election to reach all voters because the primary election will be waged as if it were a general election." Rich candidates will have an even bigger edge.

In the face of those considerable risks, Stern told The Chronicle's editorial board he was "leaning toward it" because "your vote really counts in your district."

The center's analysis found that one-third of all district races could produce general election runoffs between members of the same party, and some of those runoffs "could be close enough" that decline-to-state voters and those from another party would determine the outcome. And decline-to-state voters now represent more than 20 percent of the state electorate.

Specifically, the center's review of 2006 and 2008 primaries figured that 19 of the 80 Assembly and 40 state Senate districts would have resulted in a same-party Top Two runoff, with four of those races being what you might call competitive -- that is, with a winner who won by less than 5 percentage points.

Maybe it's Reform Fatigue, but I wonder if a potential change in four seats is worth the risk.

Tom Del Beccaro, vice chairman of the California Republican Party and publisher of politicalvanguard.com, strongly objects to those who call Proposition 14 an "open primary" measure, as a Top Two primary threatens to close the door on voters.

The GOP, he told me, pays to register voters in San Francisco. "Am I going to keep doing that if I can't get a guy on the ballot?"

Citing the plight of the lonely Bay Area Republican, Del Beccaro asked, "If we have no Republican on the ballot, won't Republicans get discouraged and stop voting?"

In 2004, I wrote that while Proposition 62 might deprive Republicans in liberal areas and Democrats in conservative parts of an opportunity to vote for a true co-believer who is bound to lose, it would give them a chance to vote for an electable candidate whom they find less offensive. Besides, the bait-and-switch phony reform on the 2004 ballot made me root for an honest effort.

Now, I consider the prospect of elections in which money counts even more than today and there's hardly anyone on the ballot whom I like. And I wonder if there's something to be said for the meager satisfaction of a protest vote.

Perhaps the way to approach the measures is to ask: How desperate is California?

Perhaps the meager satisfaction of a protest vote is a luxury. Or in the words of Hartman, the state's problems are so great that voters must embrace change even with "some attendant risks to it. Unless we can find some legislators who appeal to voters in the middle and are prepared to make some compromises, I don't see how the state prospers into the future -- unless California makes some fairly dramatic political changes.

"I'm prepared to take that risk. It is sort of like jumping off the cliff."

COPYRIGHT 2010 CREATORS.COM

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