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California's Open Primary

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February 28, 2012 1:16 p.m.

Guests: Deborah Seiler, San Diego County Registrar of Voters

Carl Luna, professor, San Diego Mesa College

Related Story: Explaining California's Open Primary


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

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CAVANAUGH: Our top story on Midday Edition, the 2012 political races in San Diego are heating up just about now. The primary vote takes place on June†5th, and for the next couple of month, we'll be seeing debates springs up all over the county. KPBS will be hosting congressional debates and a mayoral debate. This is the open primary that California voters approved back in 2010. It may change the dynamic of partisan politics in California and make a big difference in who advances to the general election in November. Joining me to discuss our upcoming open primary are my guests, Deborah Seiler is San Diego County registrar of voters. Welcome.

SEILER: Thank you, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Carl Luna is here, professor of political science at Mesa College. Welcome

LUNA: Nice to be here.

CAVANAUGH: Now, there's been some confusion even here in our news room about how California's open primary will work. If you could, walk us through it. I know there are three different kinds of contests; is that right?

SEILER: That is correct, Maureen. For this election, we do have a little bit of a new twist. Of the three contests, only one is partisan. And that is the contest for the presidential race. And we have what we now call voter-nominated offices. We used to call them partisan offices. Contests for US Congress, state Senate, in another year there will be constitutional officers on the ballot such as governor and lieutenant governor. These contests are now subject to what we call the top two or open primary election. And this is something that we had -- we had something similar to this in 1998, where the names of all the candidates go on the ballot. The voters can choose a Democrat for one contest or a Republican for another, regardless of their own political party affiliation. And the top two vote getters go forward to the November general election. Of the third category of election contests is nonpartisan offices, and that's a combination of offices that are elected by plurality vote, and contests that are elected by possibly a majority vote in the primary. So for example, the mayor of the City of San Diego, if one candidate receives 50% of the vote, that candidate wins outright in the primary, and there's no runoff. So there are different type was contests.

CAVANAUGH: Let me break that down with you one more time. Fiam a Democrat, and I go to the primary on June 5th, can I vote for a Republican who's running for president?

SEILER: No, you cannot. When you walk into the polls, you could receive the democratic ballot. And the ballot would only have the contest for democratic race for president. Then it would have these other two categories of offices on it. Then you would be able to freely elect folks who, take state assembly for example, all of the candidates, Republican, Democrat, etc, would be listed on that ballot, and you could pick freely among those candidates.

CAVANAUGH: But if I want to vote for the Republican presidential nominees or candidates, I have to be a registered Republican?

SEILER: That is correct. Now, that's even something more interesting about this contest because the Democrats have elected to allow the nonpartisan voters to participate in their primary election. So if you were a nonpartisan voter, you could walk into the polls and request either a Democratic Party ballot or the American independent party has also done this. Of the Republicans have not opened their presidential primary to nonpartisan voters.

CAVANAUGH: All right then. If I am a Republican in the 52nd congressional district, and I walk into the ballot box on June 5th, and I look at my options for voting for my Congressman, can I just vote for Republicans?

SEILER: Certainly. You'll be able to --

CAVANAUGH: But only for Republicans? May I also vote for Democrats?

SEILER: Yes, you can vote for anyone you like. You're only restricted with respect to the presidential contest. All the others, you can vote either way.

CAVANAUGH: When I get in a mail-in ballot or enter the voting booth, what changes am I going to see?

SEILER: Really what you'll see are more choices. In those voter-nominated offices, Congress, 78 legislature, you will see a combination of candidates with their preferences next to their name. So what you have is more choice in that contest.

CAVANAUGH: Now, for the vote are-nominated offices, and this would include the governor, lieutenant governor, and also US Congress and Senators and Congress people. For those offices, who gets on the ballot in the general election in November?

SEILER: The top two vote getters. So those people who receive the first place and second place number of votes go forward on the November ballot, regardless of their party. So it's conceivable that two Democrats could go forward or two Republicans could go forward.

CAVANAUGH: And what are the offices in which a candidate may win outright in a primary?

SEILER: Some of the offices where a candidate could win outright in the county are the county Board of Supervisors, county sheriff, the City of San Diego, and county board of education.

CAVANAUGH: So the mayor and City Council people would have the possibility of winning outright if they get 50% of the vote plus one.

SEILER: That is correct.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. Carl, you've been sitting quietly through all this. Can you remind us why voters approved the open primary in the first place?

LUNA: I'm not sure because after hearing that, I want to move to Canada. Do remember, I have to teach this to 17-22 year-olds and try to make sense of it. We've adopted it because two things have been happening in our elections. Fewer people are showing up to vote, it's popped up a little bit the last couple of elections but it's not back to where it was, and the elections have been increasingly partisan. The electorate and primaries is increasingly very liberal Democrat or a very conservative Republican like you're seeing in the Republican national race today. So if you're in a district that has been gerrymanders to be mostly Republican, and you win in the primary, you have to appeal to a very conservative base. So you've been electing very conservative Republicans to Sacramento, very liberal Democrats, and if they compromise with each other in the next election, somebody more liberal or conservative will replace them. The hope with this is by allowing voters to vote however they want, candidates will have to move to the center, become more moderate. This is the third and fourth iteration we have had in the last 20 years trying to accomplish that same goal. I'm not optimistic.

CAVANAUGH: What do the political parties think of this open primary system?

LUNA: In public, they will swallow it and accept it. In private, Republicans particularly don't like that because they think they're going to lose some seats statewide with it. And it kind of undercuts the whole idea of having political parties. We don't want partisanship. It exists everywhere now. Parties are supposed to be a group of coherent voters that have banded together to pick what they stand for. This system sort of waters that down. It's supposed to move you toward the mushy middle, but I think that just provides for more voter distraction and confusion.

CAVANAUGH: You say that the Republican party is perhaps most afraid that it might be statewide affected by this new open primary?

LUNA: If you taking a look at the demographics, the state is leading increasingly Democrat, and the new redistricting done by an independent panel for the first time, the Republicans were contesting it because they thought they weren't going to do as well in some of the state Senate race it is. The Democratic Party helped push this through in Sacramento. Now, it may result in more moderate Republicans and Democrats. I'm not that certain that the voters will be able to deliver that.

CAVANAUGH: What do you think will be the effect on the parties themselves? The power of political parties in California? Tony Covaric has said the open primary law was meant to lessen the influence of political parties but is doing the exact opposite. Do you go with him, Carl?

LUNA: Well, you're not certain how it will play out. That was the intent of it. But the intent of that in Louisiana was to produce more moderate candidates. You ended up with David duke, a neo-fascist in the governor's race in 1990. On the one hand, you're supposed to have candidates moving toward the middle. You'll need more money out of these races, you'll need more organizational structure, and when you go into the general election, are the parties will play the same role they've always played in backing thirds requirement candidate to the hilt. Better my wishy washy party man of my party than anybody else's party.

CAVANAUGH: What happens if two of the same members of the same party actually get the most votes in a primary and then move onto the November election? I think there is some speculation that that may happen in the 51st district here in San Diego County where the two strongest candidates seem to be two democratic.

CAVANAUGH: Now, if that occurs, that would be the best scenario for accomplishing what this process is supposed to do. You end up with two Democrats competing. You will have to have the Democrat that can appeal to moderate independents the most. But then what will Republicans do? They could end up going in and voting for the weakest candidate trying to Gabe the whole thing. It produces more confusion than a straight out, I'm voting for my party, you're voting for yours.

CAVANAUGH: You mentioned a vote that took place in Louisiana, and you mentioned a certain name for this kind of open primary that we have. Tell us about that

LUNA: It's called the jungle primary or the Cajun primary because that's what they were doing in Cajun country in Louisiana.

CAVANAUGH: And are they still doing that?

LUNA: As far as I know, they're still doing that. And it hasn't had the same discomfort it had back in 1990. But doing the system like this, where you let anybody vote for anybody is kind of like allowing Raider fans to call offensive plays for the San Diego chargers.

CAVANAUGH: Deborah, you think that voters are going to like the system.

>> The reason I think voters are going to like it is because they have a broader array of is

Issues on the ballot -- and also the voters had something similar to this 1998, when we had a blanket primary. And under the blanket primary, all of the candidates went on the same ballot, just like this open top two primary, and the only difference was the top vote getter from each party went forward to the November election. And it was considered a party nomination. It was struck down by the US Supreme Court, but the voters really did like it when they had it.

CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering, we're hearing today is the vote in Michigan, and that there is an open presidential primary in Michigan. How can they do that?

ST. JOHN: The idea of the open presidential primary is to increase voter turnout. If you're a Democrat or Republican and you don't have a real contest to worry about, it can you a chance to turn out. The up side of that as more people participate. The down side, is you end up Michigan picking a party that might be more moderate, are the party doesn't like that. And I tend to fall in the view, if you have political party, they should get to pick their candidates, and the voters sort them out in the general election. And if they don't like their choice, they go to Pepsi instead of coke.

CAVANAUGH: You made a joke that you were trying to explain all this to the 17 year-olds that you teach. Is this a confusing system do you think for people?

LUNA: We in general in this country have the most confusing system of elections. In every other country, everybody gets the same equipment, the same national money, we've got thousands of voting systems in every county. Different in every county across the country. And don't even get into the electoral college, which is at the back end of this system, it would be nice if we had a system where people could show up and vote, and whoever got the majority of the vote wins and we move on.

CAVANAUGH: Deborah, is the San Diego County registrar's office going to be doing anything special to try to educate voters about this new open primary in June?

SEILER: Yes, we certainly are. We are putting information out on our website, frequently asked questions, and I think too it will become -- when people receive their sample ballot booklets in the mail and see these lists of candidates on there, and how they're listed with their party and put together with multiple parties on the same ballot, I think it's going to become apparent to them. We will also put a little explanation in our sample ballot regarding this top two primary.

CAVANAUGH: I think we'll need it. Thank you both very much.

SEILER: You're welcome.

LUNA: Thank you.