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Open Primary: Solution To California's Woes

By Jason Olson

WHILE CALIFORNIA opens a new decade with unprecedented problems and a lack of political leadership, we also have an opportunity to turn it all around by empowering independent voters with the Top Two Open Primary Measure this June. No one needs reminding of California's massive problems. The state is broke, slashing services and watching its economy sputter. Every day seems to bring additional bad news about how the political decisions made in years past have hamstrung the state.

In the midst of these crises, most of our elected officials are continuing to cut short-term deals and look out for their special interests and political parties rather than providing leadership. That is why state Sen. Abel Maldonado's move to use his budget leverage to put the Top Two Open Primary Measure on the June 2010 ballot was so stunning.

The Top Two Open Primary would effectively make our statewide elections (including congressional ones) nonpartisan in the same way our local elections for mayor and city council are. Rather than running in party primaries heavily controlled by insiders, candidates for office would all run on the same ballot against each other, regardless of party. All voters—including independents—could simply vote for the best candidate. The top two vote getters would then go on to a "runoff"-style election.

Why is this so important? Because it empowers independent voters—that group of voters that cares more about what is best for the state and country than what is best for the political parties—to exercise serious political clout. Approximately 20 percent of California voters are registered "Decline to State," California's version of independents with no party affiliation. When empowered to do so, independent voters have a track record of shaking up elections. In 2008, independent voters participating in open primaries across the country provided Barack Obama's margin of victory over Hillary Clinton and elected him president. In the 2003 recall, an election very similar to how the new open primary would work, independent voters elected Arnold Schwarzenegger, a man who could have never won a Republican Primary.  

What would it be like if the politicians knew they couldn't simply rely on their narrow partisan bases to get them re-elected? Some in the third parties have decided to oppose the open primary because it does not give their candidates a "guaranteed spot" in the second round of the election. They also complain it would require them to register more voters in order to maintain their presidential ballot status. What these third parties ignore is the very concept of the open primary: that the people—not any party—have the right to control our elections process. Today less than 1.5 percent of voters are registered in the Green, Peace and Freedom, and Libertarian Parties combined. Over the last decade, California independents have made it clear that we want more than just a protest vote; we want to be able to exercise our clout in the political mainstream.  

California, like much of the country, is paying the price for decades of partisan political decisions. As we open a new decade, there is a group of voters ready to take the mantle of leadership and do what is right for the state and the country. If Californians pass the new Top Two Open Primary Measure this June, they will empower independent voters and help continue a wave of reform sweeping across the country.

Jason Olson is the coordinator of, a California association of independent voters working to change politics.

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