Voters Could Upend Calif., Wash. Primaries

In a testament to the independent streak of Western voters, Washington and California are considering dumping political party primaries (search).

Proposals on the November ballot would turn virtually all state and federal primaries into a sort of political free-for-all in the two states. Voters, regardless of party affiliation, could cherry-pick from candidates of every stripe on a single primary ballot.

Only the top two finishers would move to the November ballot, hence the term "top-two primary."

What that means is that in a primary, Democrats could vote for a Republican. Republicans could pull the lever for a Green Party (search) candidate. Greens could choose a Democrat. And so on.

As elsewhere in the country, voters in Western states have grown weary of deadlocked legislatures, cookie-cutter candidates and rubber-stamp elections. Some see the "top-two" idea as a continuation of other election-reform movements that have produced term limits and caps on campaign financing.

"The West has always been more independent in its politics — we are not tied as securely to the parties like in the East and the upper Midwest," said University of Washington (search) political science professor David Olson, who backs the change.

The California initiative is one of 16 propositions on the ballot in the state this year, and it has become a high-profile issue. Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger endorsed the proposal this week, but his party is against it. Arizona Sen. John McCain, a Republican, has also endorsed the measure.

"I didn't come to Sacramento to make the political parties happy," Schwarzenegger said. "An open primary is an important reform that will lead to more mainstream legislators from each party coming to the Capitol."

Schwarzenegger could benefit politically if Proposition 62 passes. He could end up with a more centrist Legislature in keeping with his middle-of-the-road politics, while avoiding a GOP primary if he seeks re-election — freeing him from having to cater to conservatives.

He and other supporters of the California measure argue that an open-style primary would force candidates to appeal to Main Street voters, rather than pandering to the right- or left-tilting activists that tend to dominate primaries. The result, at least in theory, is less gridlock.

"People are frustrated because politics seems more polarized and divisive, problems are not getting solved and voters feel that they don't have a say," said Tracy Westen of the Center for Governmental Studies, a nonpartisan research group.

But political parties argue that the "top-two" idea would steamroll third-party candidates off the November ballot, in effect limiting choice, if not democracy. In some left-leaning districts, two Democrats could end up on the November ballot. In right-leaning districts, it could be Republican vs. Republican.

The proposal would "take away the rights of people to vote for a candidate of their own political party in the general election," California GOP Chairman Duf Sundheim said.

The Legislature added to the confusion in California, putting on the ballot a rival plan that would maintain the status quo and ensure each party could advance a candidate to the general election. If both measures pass, the one with more votes will take effect — although lawsuits are possible.

Proposition 62 has run ahead in the latest polls, but there is a large number of undecided voters.

One reason the change is taking root — it is also being talked about in Oregon and Alaska — is that voters in California and Washington have the ability to take government into their own hands by placing proposals on the ballot in what is known as the initiative and referendum system. To put a measure before the voters, organizers must collect a certain number signatures.

Activists in both states are also reacting to court decisions that forced them to restructure their primary elections in recent years.

For decades, Washington had used a so-called blanket primary, which allowed voters to choose candidates from different parties, similar to the "top two" primary. The major difference is that a blanket primary allowed each party to advance a candidate to the November ballot, rather than just the top two finishers.

California used a similar blanket primary in 1998 and 2000, until it was ruled an illegal infringement on the parties. But the U.S. Supreme Court has signaled that the "top two" primary would strike an acceptable balance between party and voter rights. Both states have long held nonpartisan local elections.