Cavala: “Open” Primary Will Close Out Minor Political Parties In California.3 min read

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While it is difficult for a new political party to qualify itself for the ballot, state law makes it easy to retain a place on the ballot once earned. A party need only retain registration equal to 1/15th of one percent of the state total, then garner votes at the polls either equal to 1% of the total vote cast for governor or 2% of the vote for any statewide partisan office.

The low party registration number – 1/15th of 1% – is the result of the Legislature being kind to the lobbyist for the Prohibition Party. After each election that party would fail to meet the threshold for retaining a place on the ballot, and the Legislature would lower it. The lobbyist finally passed away and the process stopped. But it serves today to keep the Peace and Freedom Party and the American Independent Party on the ballot decades after their raison d’être ceased to exist.

The “open primary”, if it is put in place by voters in the Primary Election next year, will end all that.

Only the two top vote-getting candidates – regardless of their party preference – will find a place on the General Election ballot. In most cases, especially where incumbents are seeking reelection, this will result in a Democrat facing a Republican in the ‘run-off’.
In a few cases, it will result in two Democrats running-off. In ever fewer cases, two Republicans will run-off. But under ordinary circumstances, none of the minor party candidates will ever find themselves on the November run-off ballot.

The only circumstance where that would not be the case would be a district in which one of the two major parties didn’t file a candidate in the primary – leaving a minor party candidate one of the two top vote-getters that would advance to the Fall ballot. But awareness of this fact would be all the incentive required to insure that the respective State Committees of each major party “filed” a candidate in each seat.

The result would be the total absence of any Minor Party candidate on the fall ballot. And, because of that, no minor party candidate would be in a position to meet even the dubiously low standards for retaining their position as a qualified political party. If you’re not on the ballot, then you won’t get a vote equal to 1% of that for Governor or 2% of the vote for a state partisan office. You won’t get any votes.

Denied the ability to meet the vote requirements of state law, California’s minor parties – the Peace and Freedom Party, the American Independent Party, the Green Party and the Libertarian Party – will go the way of the dodo bird. While they could, in theory, return as a Party by obtaining 90,000 registrations or 900,000 petition signatures,
What would be the point? They would still find themselves shut-out of the run-off contests in the fall, hence faced with oblivion once again because of the standards of the Election Code.

Our major political parties serve many functions, the most important of which is to provide a mechanism for resolving “Arrow problems” – problems arising because of the intransitivity of social choices. Minor parties have served mainly as a parking place for protest votes, on occasion upsetting the balance between the Major Parties and forcing an accommodation. For better or worse, the “open” primary will end the place that minor parties has had in our political history.

Bill Cavala was Deputy Director of the Assembly Speaker’s Office of Member Services where he worked for over 30 years. He attended undergraduate and graduate school in the 1960’s and received a doctorate in political science at UC Berkeley. He taught political science at UC Berkeley during the 1970’s while he worked part-time for the State Assembly.

Cavala left teaching at UC Berkeley for Assembly Speaker Willie Brown in 1981 until his tenure as Speaker ended in 1995, and he has worked for his five successors as Speaker. He now manages election campaigns for Democratic candidates.

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