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Jewish World Review June 14, 2004 / 25 Sivan, 5764

John H. Fund

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Don't Pardon Their French: "Good government" Californians embrace the system that produced David Duke. | California is on the verge of adopting a method of holding political primaries that is found nowhere in America but Louisiana, a state whose own residents will tell you has a political culture everyone should think twice about emulating. Edwin Edwards, the Cajun French governor who instituted the so-called open primary in 1975, borrowed the idea from France, where it has led to no end of mischief.

The open-primary proposal will be on California's November ballot. Its proponents include Richard Riordan, a Republican former mayor of Los Angeles, and Leon Panetta, who served as Bill Clinton's White House chief of staff. They are fed up with the left-right polarization of politics in the Golden State. Currently, only those registered with a particular political party are allowed to select its nominees. Open-primary backers say the current system selects "ideological" candidates who won't govern from the center.

Their proposal would create a two-tiered primary in which all candidates would run on a single ballot. If a candidate exceeded 50%, he would be elected to the office; otherwise, the top two finishers, regardless of party, would advance to a general election runoff. Supporters say this would allow unaffiliated voters a chance to vote in primaries and result in more moderate candidates being elected. Similar efforts are also under way in Oregon and Washington state.

The idea is superficially appealing, and California voters approved a more workable version of the open primary in 1996. But four years later, the U.S. Supreme Court declared California's open primary unconstitutional because it violated the rights of parties to set their own rules. But the Supreme Court has given its approval to the Louisiana-style system.

It's hard to imagine good-government types borrowing an idea imported from France by the devious Mr. Edwards, now in federal prison for extortion and racketeering, as a way to perpetuate his political machine's power. Even Tom Campbell, the former congressman who sponsored the original open-primary ballot measure in 1996, is highly skeptical of the Louisiana model. Indeed, if it had been in place in Mr. Campbell's own 1992 race for the U.S. Senate, the general election runoff would likely have featured two Democrats and no Republican. In many gerrymandered GOP districts the opposite could happen and the runoff would feature two Republicans.

The leaders of both the Democratic and Republican parties, along with all the minor parties, are in rare united opposition. The minor parties know that a "top 2" approach effectively eliminates their role, and would make it nigh on impossible for the Green Party to duplicate its 2001 feat of electing a party member to the state Assembly.

The major parties say the current primary model features volunteers and activists in each party who often fight furiously over who should be nominated but then coalesce to present clear alternatives to the public in the fall election. In an open primary, they argue, candidates would avoid taking controversial positions in favor of the "most electable" stand on issues.

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That's a dubious contention—as is the proponents' version of it, that the open primary favors moderates. In 1991 Louisiana's open primary brought us the spectacle of a runoff pitting Mr. Edwards against David Duke. The bumper sticker given out in that race remains a classic: "Vote for the crook, it's Important."

Something similar happened in France's presidential race two years ago. The primary featured 16 candidates, and the second-place finisher, with 17% of the vote, was Jean-Marie Le Pen, a demagogic right-wing populist. Mr. Le Pen's runoff opponent was President Jacques Chirac, who many observers said had escaped indictment on corruption charges only because of his presidential immunity. Mr. Le Pen wound up being crushed in the runoff, but many French voters felt that they were denied a real choice. After all, only 20% had backed Mr. Chirac in the primary.

The best argument from supporters of the open primary is that Californians already use a version of it to fill local offices such as mayors and county supervisors. But those offices were declared nonpartisan a century ago on the theory that unlike statewide executive and legislative offices, they were more involved with the technocratic delivery of services and less with governing philosophies.

The battle over the France-Louisiana primary measure will be close. While every political party opposes the measure, its wealthy backers have secured the services of Mike Murphy, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's media adviser. The governor himself is likely to remain neutral. He and many other Californians are aware that excessive partisan politics has often snarled the search for political solutions in California.

But replacing partisan primaries with Louisiana's bizarre system is no solution. Like the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform, it will simply create a whole new set of problems.

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©2001, John H. Fund