For More Inclusive Primaries, See How California Does It

Shawnee Badger, 22, listens to Bernie Sanders speak at a rally in Santa Barbara, California, on May 28. The authors explain that in California there is one public primary. All candidates appear on the ballot. Every voter is eligible. The two most popular advance to the election. Lucy Nicholson/reuters

From our earliest days as a country, our history has been marked by moments when the people have risen up and successfully demanded changes that bring us closer to the democratic ideals of our founding.

This year, the issue of open versus closed primaries will be hotly debated at both the Democratic and Republican nominating conventions.

Senator Ted Cruz and party activists, citing conflicting data that open contests favored Donald Trump, will champion rules that bar independents from voting in future GOP contests.

Senator Bernie Sanders and his supporters, angry over a primary process that insulates the establishment, are seeking significant reforms to the nominating process, including opening the primaries.

This fight is about the vision and values of America and the pragmatic capacity of our government to adopt policy solutions to 21st-century challenges. While other countries are building bullet trains, improving their schools and providing 99 percent internet connectivity, American politics is stuck somewhere between gridlock and the gutter.

A premise shared by some is that the parties should determine the rules of the game. On its surface, this seems logical. The Democratic and Republican Parties are private organizations. Shouldn't they decide if independents and nonaligned voters can participate in choosing their nominee?

There is one big problem. The primaries are public elections, paid for with tax dollars and administered by government agencies. Why should private organizations decide who can and cannot vote in public elections?

The solution to this dilemma lies in abolishing partisan primaries in favor of public primaries. Conducting public primaries does not mean the end of political parties, which play a role in bringing together like-minded people, promoting issues and recruiting and training candidates.

But parties function best when they are participants in the process, not the rule makers. The current system, which cedes too much power and control to the political parties, incentivizes politicians to prioritize the interests of the few over the common good. It doesn't have to be that way.

In 2010, California voters were frustrated by an election system that produced perpetual gridlock and 99 percent incumbency protection. The private sector in California was booming with innovation, but politics and government were mired in partisanship. A broad left-right coalition, including the two of us, came together to shake up the status quo by adopting a public primary via ballot referendum.

Today, in California, there is no longer a Democratic primary and a Republican primary in races below president. There is one public primary. All the candidates appear on the ballot. Every voter is eligible to participate. And the two most popular candidates, regardless of party affiliation, advance to the general election.

The seemingly modest change of moving from partisan primaries to public primaries has had major benefits for California.

The switch enfranchised 4.1 million independent voters who no longer have to ask permission to have a voice in their own government; elected officials must now reach out to all the voters in the first round, not just a partisan few, in order to get elected.

The atmosphere in Sacramento has changed dramatically. Partisan gamesmanship for political advantage has become far less prevalent, with legislators breaking with their party on key votes.

Bipartisan coalitions have formed on previously intractable issues, such as immigration reform. Budgets are now passed on time, and the California legislature is no longer a national symbol of dysfunction.

The legislature's approval rating has climbed from 14 percent to 42 percent, and California elections are now the most competitive in the nation, with a record 14 incumbents defeated in just the first two election cycles since adopting a public primary.

One of those defeated was Representative Pete Stark, who was unseated by fellow Democrat Eric Swalwell. Stark had not faced a competitive November race in his 40 years in Congress.

Minority representation has also grown under the new system. African-American representation has increased 50 percent in the state legislature. Latino candidates for state office jumped 27 percent, Latino candidates for Congress jumped 118 percent, and the California Hispanic Congressional delegation has grown 50 percent since the public primary was adopted in 2010.

Public primaries are working in California, as well as Nebraska and Washington. It's time to take this practical success and bring it to Congress and other state capitals. In California, the parties no longer control the primary process, so voters and elected officials are empowered to work together to reclaim the state's position as a global center of technology and innovation.

The rest of the country would be smart to watch.

John Opdycke is the president of Open Primaries, a national advocacy organization. Steve Westly runs a large sustainability venture capital firm and served as controller and CFO of the state of California from 2003 to 2007.

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