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Wednesday, November 13, 2002


Voter turnout in California was abysmal, with good reason.

On the state level, our choices for Governor were pathetic. Most of the voters who dragged themselves into the polling booths are still walking around a week later with severely pinched noses.

The only state-wide race which was competitive was the contest for Controller. As of this date we still don't know for sure who has won. My own spreadsheet projection indicates that Tom McClintock will cut into Steve Westly's 26 thousand vote election-night margin, but Westly will probably still hang on for a narrow victory. If so, I'm personally very disappointed. But in any case this down-ticket race was not enough to motivate people to get out and vote.

Nor was there much of an incentive to get out and vote in State Assembly and State Senate races, since they were so grossly Gerrymandered as to all but disenfranchised 90% of the population in California. We should institute either a formula-based redistricting system (e.g., start at one corner of the state and computer-generate equal-sized districts precinct-by-precinct, irrespective of city boundaries or political registration or ethnic considerations or any other arbitrary characteristics), or we should hand the redistricting task over to a group of retired judges or other reasonably-objective special masters. But we should not leave it up to the politicians themselves; that's insane.

Last year both Republicans and Democrats cooperated in passing an incumbent protection scheme that made most of the "contests" last week irrelevant. That also meant that the very few contests which were competitive had humongous quantities of money thrown at them from all over the state, simply because there was no point in spending that money anyplace else.

A related issue is the nature of the primaries which select each party's candidates. Should we have open primaries or closed primaries or non-partisan elections or something else?

There's an important freedom-of-association consideration that argues against open primaries: Those people who share a broad set of ideas and come together to form a political party should not have their party's nomination hijacked by other people who either do not share those ideas or wish to actively sabotage that party's candidates. (This is the Supreme Court's basic position.)

However, there is no fundamental reason why elections must be "partisan". We have non-partisan races on the local level. Either the top vote-getter(s) win outright, or there's a runoff between the top two vote-getters (if no one receives an out-right majority). An initiative measure implementing a similar methodology may well be placed on the 2004 ballot.

Why should political parties be enshrined in state law? Political parties can be voluntary associations which endorse and support their candidates, without having any special ballot access or status. And elections can use a system of Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) to allow voters to rank their preferences and efficiently select a winner, regardless of party.

A good compromise might be to hold closed primary elections as we presently do, to select an official nominee from each political party. But everyone (including the losers at their option) along with independents would still be placed on the November ballot. However, only the primary winners would be able to list their political parties after their names. Voters would then rank their choices using an IRV system to pick the ultimate winner. This preserves the goal of the open primary advocates, to allow all the voters an opportunity to vote for less "extreme" candidates from each political party. At the same time it preserves a "beauty contest" for members of each political party to indicate their preferences.

Such a system would make statewide and legislative races far more competitive, and would motivate a much higher voter turnout. Who knows, it might even result in better people being elected...

One of the few bright spots of California's election last week was the resounding defeat of Proposition 52. Competitive races and superior candidates are vastly better solutions to low voter turnout than election day registration.

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