From Inyo County Clerk-Recorder and Registrar of Voters, Kammi Foote –
As a Registrar of Voters, I receive numerous calls from voters who are unclear about how to vote in California; with good reason. Since the mid-nineties, we have changed how we vote in primary elections nearly every presidential election cycle.
For years California had what is known as a “closed” primary. This meant that in a primary election, voters registered with a political party could only vote for a candidate registered with the same party in partisan races. One candidate from each party would move on to the general election.
In 1996, voters approved Proposition 198, which changed the “closed” primary to an “open” primary. In the “open” primary, all registered voters could vote for any candidate in partisan races, regardless of the political party of the voter or candidate. Again, one candidate from each party would move on to the general election.
In June 2000, the United States Supreme Court found that the “open” primary violated political parties’ rights and overturned Prop 198.
Shortly thereafter, in an attempt to reconcile what state voters wanted with parties’ rights, the legislature passed Senate Bill 28. This bill repealed amendments made by Prop 198 and created a “modified” closed primary. In a “modified” closed primary, voters registered with a party could only vote for candidates of the same party in partisan races. In addition, voters who were not registered with a party, sometimes called “independent” voters, could vote for partisan races only if the political party previously authorized them to do so.
The “modified” closed primary can be extremely confusing for voters who do not closely follow party rules. For example voters registered without a party were not allowed to vote a Republican ballot in the 2008 presidential primary, but could choose to vote a Republican ballot in the June 2008 direct primary.
In 2010, California once again changed its primary election system with the passage of Proposition 14, known as the Top-Two Open Primary. Offices formerly known as “partisan” were re-branded as either party-nominated or voter-nominated.
Party-nominated races are held under the rules of a “modified” closed primary, while voter-nominated races are essentially held under the rules of an “open” primary. In the party-nominated races of president and vice-president, one candidate for each party advances to the general election. In voter-nominated races only the top-two vote getters go on to the general election, regardless of party.
Confused? So are many other voters in California.
In addition to fielding questions about the ever-changing primary election system, I also receive many inquiries about the initiative process. People ask why initiatives like Prop 198, voted in by a majority of Californians, are overturned; doesn’t it contradict democracy? The short answer is – yes. The long answer is complicated and dates back to the founding of the US government.
The authors of the constitution wanted to create a self-governing society, but they recognized the dangers of democracies. They knew that different interests exist in different classes of citizens and that if a majority of people united, they could suppress the rights of a minority. The smaller group would have no way to receive justice; the purpose of government itself.
As described in Federalist Papers 51 “Justice is the end of government. It is the end of civil society. It ever has been and ever will be pursued until it be obtained, or until liberty is lost in the pursuit.”
Our government combines the principals of democracy with republicanism and is based on the concepts of deliberation, compromise and justice. When a voter initiative, or any law passed by government, is determined by the judicial process to violate the rights of any group, no matter how large or small, then it will be deemed unconstitutional.
People might argue that the Constitution and the mindset that existed during its inscription are obsolete. But if you look back over the thousands of governments and empires that have risen and collapsed, you will find an evolution of enlightened understanding based on historical truths of freedom and oppression that led to the ratification of the US Constitution.
Voting can be a frustrating and complex process and our system of government can seem outdated at times, but we must remember that our Constitutional Republic has withstood civil war, world wars, assassinations, financial crisis and terror attacks and through it all we have witnessed thousands and thousands of peaceful transitions of power as we continually elect new representatives to all levels of government. It is important not to allow temporary obstacles to cause us to lose faith in the process that has served us well for over 200 years. Finally we must always remember that every voter unquestionably makes a difference and that our system of government will work if we are persistent and vigilant in fulfilling our duties as actively engaged citizens.