By GUY KOVNER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Political third parties, which typically veer to the left or right of the Democrats and Republicans, don’t like California’s new top-two, open primary that makes its debut in the June 5 election.
The system, approved by 54 percent of state voters as Proposition 14 in 2010, replaces traditional partisan primaries in which voters in each party nominate candidates for the general election.
Instead, California voters will choose in June among all the candidates for congressional, legislative and statewide offices, and the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, will move on to a November run-off.
Backers of Proposition 14, including former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, said it would foster the election of more moderate lawmakers and ease gridlock in Sacramento.
“It cuts us out of any chance of winning,” said Pamela Elizondo of Laytonville, a veteran third-party candidate who is running for the North Coast Assembly seat this year, her ninth campaign as either a Peace and Freedom or Green Party candidate.
Elizondo, a former welfare mother who lives on Social Security benefits, said there is “no question” that the top-two primary unconstitutionally discriminates against third-party candidates.
A lawsuit filed last fall in Alameda County by seven third-party members contends that the top-two system “effectively denies voters their fundamental right of choice by precluding small party candidates from the general election ballot.”
The general election, the suit says, is “the moment when the highest number of voters are engaged in the electoral process.”
The plaintiffs’ bid for a preliminary injunction to block implementation of the top-two primary has been postponed twice and now is set for April 10, said Michael Siegel, an Oakland attorney representing the party members.
Minor parties raise issues that the two major parties may avoid and “that’s valuable for democracy,” Siegel said.
Only 5 percent of California’s 17 million registered voters belong to a third party, while 74 percent are Democrats or Republicans and 21 percent are independents.
Andy Merrifield, a Sonoma State University political science professor, said the suit’s premise is valid.
“The chances of a third party ever getting to be in the top two gets down to nil,” he said.
It doesn’t matter that third-party candidates have rarely won in general elections, Merrifield said. The parties exist “not necessarily to win but to have some say in the campaign,” he said.
A Democratic candidate, for example, might move further left to appeal to Green Party voters, Merrifield said.
Attorney General Kamala Harris, defending Proposition 14, said in court papers that California’s new system “provides sufficient access to the general election by allowing all qualified candidates to compete in the primary election.”
“Nothing requires California to alter its election system to promote the interests of small parties,” Harris asserted.
The lawsuit names California Secretary of State Debra Bowen as defendant.
Shannan Velayas, a Bowen spokeswoman, said the office does not comment on pending litigation.
Those suing also include the statewide Libertarian and Peace and Freedom parties and the Green Party of Alameda County.
You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or firstname.lastname@example.org.