Primary Blanket Bingo

Within hours of Monday's Supreme Court ruling throwing out California's "blanket primary" system, supporters vowed to bring the issue back.

In a 7-2 ruling, the court said states violate political parties' rights when they let primary voters choose nominees by voting for any candidate, regardless of party affiliation. Writing for the majority, Justice Antonin Scalia said California was "forcing political parties to associate with those who do not share their beliefs."

Scalia said that created a "severe and unnecessary" burden on freedom of association rights under the Constitution.

The case centered on Proposition 198, a 1996 ballot initiative that ended the state's closed primary system. California Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, and other parties sued to overturn the initiative. A federal court and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the law before the case advanced to the nation's highest court.

"We believe that this decision is a good one for all California voters," said California's State GOP Chairman John McGraw. "We believe that a vibrant party system, with each party putting forth their nominee, is a good one for our state and for the nation."

But California Secretary of State Bill Jones, a Republican and supporter of the open primary, sharply disagreed.

"The Court's decision is a major setback for California, our voters and our primary election system," said Jones, noting that the open primary last March helped boost California's turnout of registered voters to 52 percent, the highest level in a presidential primary since 1980. Jones said independent voters were given access to primary voting under the initiative.

Nick Tobey, Chairman of Californians to Protect the Open Primary, said his group hopes to get a replacement measure on the ballot by November, 2002. Tobey said they would explore the "full array of possibilities," from the open primary system to Louisiana's non-partisan system, which allows the two top to vote-getters to advance from the primary to a run-off election.

Daniel Lowenstein, of the UCLA School of Law, does not believe Louisiana's system will be endangered by Monday's high court ruling. Yet he was skeptical that supporters of the open primary in California could succeed in imposing any open voting system over the objections of the political parties.

The basis for Monday's ruling, he said, is leaving it to "the parties to decide who votes in their primaries."

Other states whose systems are at risk following Monday's ruling are Alaska and Washington, which have "blanket primaries" similar to California's.

Don Whiting, the Assistant Secretary of State in Washington, said the Supreme Court ruling will not have any immediate effect, because voters there do not register to vote according to party affiliation. But he is concerned about the long term ramifications. "We're disappointed because Washngton has had a blanket primary for 65 years and this may put that statute at risk," he said.

The issue is not likely to die quietly in California, where polls show strong support for the system. Perhaps aware of this, not only did the state's highest ranking Republican oppose the lawsuit, so did the state's highest ranking Democrat, Gov. Gray Davis.

But when party members voted at their state conventions on whether they wanted non-party members voting in primary elections, they opted to keep the primaries closed. Monday, that desire was upheld by the Supreme Court.