California parties scramble to overturn the open-primary law


LOS ANGELES -- California, which likes to think of itself as being on the cutting edge of change in the country, is witnessing a lively debate over a move to turn back the clock.

The issue is Proposition 198, approved by the voters a year ago. Starting with statewide elections next year, voters will be able to cross party lines in primary elections -- Republicans voting in Democratic primaries if they choose and vice versa.

The two major parties, who unsuccessfully opposed the ballot initiative, have gone to court to upset it on grounds that it illegally compromises each party's right to choose its own nominees.

Beyond that complaint, however, is a fear among some that the new open primary will be a vehicle for major mischief. Bob Mulholland, a spokesman for the state Democratic Party, says that if the open primary had been in effect last year, Democrats for example might have helped Pat Buchanan win the California Republican primary by crossing over. With President Clinton unopposed in the Democratic primary, Democrats would have run no risk casting their ballots for a Republican they felt would be easiest for Mr. Clinton to beat.

The prospect in the year 2000, however, is that there will be strong competition in both major parties for the presidential nominations.

Mr. Mulholland and state GOP officials both express confidence that the new open primary will be thrown out by the federal court. But Mike Schroeder, the recently elected Republican state chairman, in the meantime has threatened to push for a change in his party's rules at the next state convention in September, so that only Republicans can choose their nominees either in local caucuses or a state convention. The Democrats could do the same if the court lets the open-primary system stand.

A modifying measure

Republican State Sen. Richard Rainey has introduced a bill in the state legislature that would modify the new open primary. As of now, the top vote-getter in each party primary will be nominated, with the two party nominees facing off in a November general election. Under Mr. Rainey's approach, any candidate who won 50 percent of the combined vote in the primaries would be declared elected. If no candidate did so, only then would there be a November contest between the top vote-getters in the party primaries.

The open-primary scheme was the brainchild of U.S. Rep. Tom Campbell, a moderate Republican who in 1992 lost the GOP Senate primary to conservative Bruce Herschensohn, who then was defeated in the general election by Democrat Barbara Boxer. Mr. Campbell reasoned that if the door to the GOP primary could be opened to Democrats, independents and minor-party members, he as a moderate would have a better chance to be nominated in a subsequent statewide race, and to be elected. Since then, however, he has chosen to remain in Congress.

No chicanery elsewhere

Mr. Campbell dismisses the notion that the federal court will declare the open primary unconstitutional, or that it would be a vehicle for sabotaging an opposition party by cross-over voting for a weak candidate. He notes that Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell in a related case said there was no evidence that in other states holding open primaries -- they include Alaska, Washington and Louisiana -- any such chicanery has occurred.

Besides, he says, ''you'd have to coordinate the policy without announcing it,'' presumably for fear of a backlash, and that ''the danger is you might get what you wish for'' -- that is, the ''weak'' nominee you engineered in the other party might somehow be elected in a fluke.

Marc Kirschbaum, a Los Angeles activist, dismisses talk of political mischief as ''a scare tactic'' by open-primary opponents.

Such opposition by Democratic and Republican officials is not hard to comprehend. They don't want to lose the reins of party choice to outsiders, and Republican conservatives particularly don't want a process that could loosen their grip, to the benefit of moderates.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 3/12/97

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