California's Prop. 14: A Bad Deal for Democracy

In this state, the Democratic and Republican parties rarely agree on anything -- but both oppose Proposition 14. Although its misleading ballot title promises to increase the "right to participate in primary elections," the measure actually imposes major new limits on voters.

By eliminating party primaries, Proposition 14 would deny all political parties -- and their voters -- the right to choose a nominee to run in a general election.

Instead, the top two vote-getters on a single all-inclusive primary ballot would square off in the general election, regardless of party affiliation.

In the process, the measure -- an amendment to the state constitution -- would exclude small parties from the November ballot.

As debates over Proposition 14 heat up, a stark reality shouldn't get lost in the rhetorical shuffle: This measure is on the June 8 ballot only because the state legislature put it there.

Most notably, Proposition 14 owes its existence to many Democratic lawmakers who are now denouncing it.

This ill-conceived ballot measure was born 15 months ago, when a few top-ranking legislators met in the dark and then laid an egg -- a budget package with draconian cuts. Applauding the deal, Democrats in Sacramento touted it as the best possible outcome under the budget-crisis circumstances.

But it was a lousy deal. Although its boosters were apt to present themselves as savvy political strategists, the electorate had different ideas.

Months later, in the May 2009 statewide balloting, voters rejected most of the budget deal.

But that wasn't the end of it.

In their eagerness to approve the package, lawmakers had signed off on a provision that automatically placed the "top two primary" proposal in front of voters in June 2010.

The Democratic Party is second to none in condemning Proposition 14. Yet it's a proposition that would not be on the ballot if Democrats in the state capital hadn't succumbed to blackmail from a lone Republican state senator, Abel Maldonado (who recently became lieutenant governor).

In the midst of fiscal chaos, Maldonado was able to push the "top two" scheme through the legislature in exchange for his decisive vote in favor of the budget deal. He exercised huge leverage, which existed only due to the undemocratic requirement that revenue and budget laws must gain two-thirds approval in the legislature.

So, we're now confronted with Proposition 14, a highly dubious measure -- with dire implications for democracy -- hotwired onto the statewide ballot via an undemocratic process.

The take-home message should be that a bad process is very likely to result in bad decisions -- especially when there's a terrible shortage of sunlight and an overabundance of hubris.

In Sacramento, we get very negative results when just five legislative leaders hammer out portentous budget deals behind closed doors -- and then get pledges from legislators to rally 'round the party line.

Democracy would be damaged by voter approval of Proposition 14. But the origins of the proposition already make it a grim monument to secretive deal-making in high governmental places.

Days ago, a statewide opinion poll released by the Public Policy Institute of California showed Proposition 14 ahead by a wide margin.

If it becomes part of the state constitution, Democratic lawmakers in Sacramento will have no one to blame but themselves.

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