California's Ballot Proposition for Nonpartisan Primaries

Special Report: Life in the nation’s economic ground zero. Click on photo to view multimedia presentation. Ken Light for Newsweek

If you think Washington's gridlock is bad, Californians would beg to differ.

The Golden State, which faces a $20 billion budget shortfall and an impasse over even minor public-policy decisions, has been plagued by what voters lament is extreme partisanship: an unwillingness for folks to work together at the state capitol in Sacramento. Democrats, consistently in the legislature's majority, have clashed with GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. And the lack of budget solutions has a handful of national news organizations wondering if an overextended California could actually become the nation's first failed state.

So radical times call for radical ideas, and today, California voters are considering something pretty different, something only two other states, Washington and Louisiana, have so far adopted. Specifically: getting rid of primaries, or at least the traditional kind that distill each party's list of candidates down to one, who in turn face the other party's finalist.

It's called Prop 14, and the reason for it might be today's GOP primary, in which California's Republicans are bickering over the best candidates to replace Schwarzenegger and to challenge Sen. Barbara Boxer. It's been a pretty rough campaign, which at times has turned off voters. State editorial boards have railed against the vitriol of the primary fight, specifically the one between former eBay CEO Meg Whitman and state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner in the gubernatorial race. Both have run millions of dollars' worth of ads (in Whitman's case, much of it out of pocket) that call the other far too liberal.

Under the new system, primaries would be open, allowing voters to select candidates regardless of party. The effect would be to avoid future Whitman-Poizner fights, where candidates swing toward the base for the nomination, then spend months moving to the center for the general election. Instead, all candidates, regardless of party, would be lumped together on one ballot. The top two finishers would then face a runoff. It was the idea of California's Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado (a moderate Republican), who thinks that if politicians are forced to be more centrist, they'll end up being more responsive to the people.

It's a risky theory that California business groups and trade associations love (labor unions and party organizers, on the other hand, don't), but the effect might well bring a new type of politics that could reverberate beyond the left coast. If it passes—and the system ends up working—the result could be an end to organized political parties. Powerhouse fundraising and partisan endorsements would probably follow.

For something so complex, the question Californians are answering is fairly simple: if partisanship is what's causing such problems, then why not just get rid of parties altogether?