At a time of broken politics and polarization, the impulse to seek out reforms to the political process is understandable. California, which will hold important primary elections on Tuesday, offers a cautionary tale about how good intentions alone are not enough. Eight years ago, California voters approved a ballot initiative establishing a new open primary system. The new system called for primary contests in which all candidates from all parties would be listed on the same ballot. The top two finishers, regardless of party, would advance to the November election. Then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) hailed the initiative’s passage as a vehicle that would change the political complexion of the state legislature and the congressional delegation. He and other proponents claimed that it would lead to the nomination and ultimately the election of candidates who were more moderate — center-left and center-right, rather than far left and far right.
“We in California have said we’ve got to come to the center, we’ve got to bring everyone together in order to solve problems,” Schwarzenegger said at the time. “And I think the rest of the nation eventually will find out this is exactly where the action is.”
The action Schwarzenegger envisioned hasn’t come to pass. Instead, the reforms have produced action of a different sort. Days ahead of Tuesday’s big round of primaries, the unintended consequences — though not necessarily unforeseen possibilities — of the open primary system are roiling the state’s politics. The system’s promises, meanwhile, remain mostly unfulfilled.
Most of the hand-wringing today is among Democrats. Their worries are a byproduct of their good fortune — the energy and enthusiasm that exists at the grass roots. Given Democratic opposition to President Trump, which is particularly strong in California, and the number of Republican-held seats that are competitive, this year’s elections have drawn bigger-than-normal fields of candidates.