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PARTIES TRY TO THWART OPEN PRIMARIES.

Byline: THOMAS D. ELIAS

IT'S no secret that Californians want the right to vote for whomever they please - regardless of political party - every time they go to the polls.

That's why they voted by a 59-41 percent margin in 1996 for Proposition 198, creating this state's short-lived ``blanket primary,'' in which candidates of all parties were listed together and the top vote-getters in each party made the November general election runoff.

But California's political parties, which together represent more than 75 percent of registered voters, remain determined to thwart the public will. It wasn't enough that they went to court together in the late 1990s and killed the blanket primary, arguing it's unjust for Democrats to help decide a Republican primary, and vice versa.

Now the parties are working together again, trying to thwart a new attempt to set up open primary elections here. This time it's not merely Democrats and Republicans working to kill the open election plan, but Greens, Libertarians, American Independents and even some members of the Common Cause citizen lobby.

The new proposal takes the form of a yet-unnumbered ballot initiative set for a vote this fall. It would again mandate that primary election ballots list all candidates for state office together, but this time only the top two overall vote-getters would make the runoff.

Which means in some districts, runoffs could pit two Democrats against each other, while two Republicans could face off in others. In such cases, candidates would have to appeal beyond their party base to other voters - or they'd surely lose.

It's a system aiming to produce more moderate, centrist politicians than those who run both major parties today. That's why the big parties - Democrats dominated by left-wing liberals and Republicans led by right-wing conservatives - are joining forces again to fight the new initiative.

This creates the strange scene of former Republican state chairman Shawn Steel closely allied with the state Democratic Party's chief operative Bob Mulholland. Both say the new plan is unfair to minor parties like the Greens and Libertarians because it would essentially knock them off the November ballot unless one of their candidates can outdraw all but one Republican or Democrat in a primary.

Louisiana is the one state where elections now work like the current proposal, and both Mulholland and Steel indicate they'll milk that fact for all it's worth as the fall election gets closer.

``We don't want a David Duke law in California,'' says Mulholland, alluding to the former Ku Klux Klan leader who made it into a runoff for Louisiana governor a few years ago (and lost badly).

``Do we really want to be like Louisiana?'' adds Steel, implying that the state of Creole cooking, Bourbon Street and the Superdome is somehow backward.

Both, of course, ignore the fact that the current California primary system also produced a major Ku Klux Klan candidate. That came in the late 1980s, when former California Klan leader Tom Metzger won the Democratic nomination for a northern San Diego County congressional seat.

Plus, both Democrats and Republicans decry any system that would leave minor parties out of the runoff. This draws a guffaw from Garry South, the longtime senior adviser to ex-Gov. Gray Davis now running the campaign for the open primary initiative.

``It's utterly disingenuous for the big parties to talk about wanting minor parties to survive,'' he said. ``Republicans only want the Greens around to pull down the Democratic vote, like Ralph Nader did in the 2000 presidential election. Democrats want the Libertarians and American Independents only so they can dilute Republican votes once in a while.''

South notes that an open primary system - used in city and county elections, but not for statewide votes - does allow some minor party successes. In San Francisco last fall, for instance, the runoff election pitted Democrat Gavin Newsom against the Greens' Matt Gonzalez.

Also refuting the notion that open primaries can't work is the recent history of elections in Los Angeles and San Diego. The last mayoral election in Los Angeles pitted two Democrats, while the last vote for San Diego mayor matched two Republicans.

``We need open primaries to keep extremists of both right and left from controlling politics, the way they do now,'' South adds.

All of which means it's high time major party officials like Steel and Mulholland cease their seemingly endless fight against the public will.
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Title Annotation:Viewpoint
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jun 20, 2004
Words:731
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