Steel is the immediate past president of the California Republican
Party, activist, commentator, conservative stalwart and a
co-founder of the Davis Recall. Mr. Steel is an attorney
practicing in Palos Verdes, California.
Choice': Reform-free Reform
Importing failed ideas from Louisiana and France...
[Shawn Steel] 7/8/04
- in a matter of hours - the Legislature approved Senate Constitutional
Amendment 18, a ballot initiative to preserve
political parties' right to choose their nominees by guaranteeing
every party fielding a candidate in the primary will also be
represented on the November ballot. Critics scoff that legislators
supporting SCA 18 acted from pure political self-preservation.
But let's not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. I don't
care if the 100 legislators who voted "yes" did so
because their horoscope said to - passing SCA 18 was the right
thing to do.
SCA 18 will compete
with the misleadingly christened "Voter
Choice Initiative," which would replace the traditional
party primary with a system in which the top two vote-getters
in the primary, regardless of party affiliation, face each other
in the general election. Since legislative districts are so heavily
gerrymandered that only a few are competitive, many California
voters would find themselves choosing between either two Democrats
or two Republicans in the November election.
This is not reform.
Indeed, "Voter Choice" supporters
- a small group of wealthy self-identified reformers - don't
contend the current system is ineffective or disenfranchising
voters or intrinsically bad. They simply don't think it produces
enough officeholders who fit their ideological preferences. Thus,
this is less an attempt to reform the system than to bias it
to produce a desired outcome, e.g. the election of more "moderates."
Unfortunately, there is scant evidence that a top-two system
would do that. Louisiana adopted it nearly 30 years ago, and
has hardly been transformed into a citadel of moderation. Indeed,
in 1991 the system resulted in a gubernatorial runoff between
white supremacist David Duke and the notoriously corrupt former
governor, Edwin Edwards. Faced with this noxious choice, Louisiana
voters held their nose and picked Edwards - who was later imprisoned
for bribery and fraud.
France is another singular example of the top-two system's splintering
effect. In France's 2001 presidential election, it produced a
runoff between incumbent President Jacques Chirac and right-wing
extremist Jean Le Pen. Lacking a real choice, French voters -
a large number of whom detested Chirac - cast their ballot unenthusiastically
for the lesser of two evils.
What the Voter Choice Initiative is likely to do is virtually
obliterate third parties because their candidates could never
garner sufficient votes to make the runoff. It would raise barriers
to running for office by making it a much more expensive undertaking.
Partisan primaries are less costly because candidates only communicate
with fellow party members. Switching to a top-two system forces
candidates to fund two, much costlier general election campaigns
- rendering all but millionaire candidates even more dependent
on special interest money.
If initiative backers don't like our gerrymandered legislative
districts, their money and energy would be better spent taking
reapportionment from the Legislature and the governor and putting
it in the hands of special commission - like the panel of retired
judges which produced the fair reapportionment of 1991.
Which takes me back to why the state Legislature's speedy approval
of SCA 18 is a good thing. Obviously, many SCA 18 supporters
acted from what they perceive as their own self-interest. Some
also shared SCA 18 sponsor Sen. Ross Johnson's principled opposition
to ending the right of political party members to choose their
own nominees and denying smaller parties a place at the table
But regardless of
the various motives at work, I applaud the result because it
gives California voters a real opportunity
to choose what kind of elections system they want - retaining
some semblance of the traditional party primary or switching
to the chaotic free-for-all used by Louisiana and France. It
would present a more genuine choice than most California voters
would have if the "Voter Choice" advocates get their
This piece first appeared in the Orange County Register
Steel is a co-founder of the Davis recall campaign and immediate past
chairman of the California Republican Party.
2004 Shawn Steel