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California voters opt to change primary election system

California voters on Tuesday approved Proposition 14 [text], which alters the primary election system, creating an open primary where only the top two vote-getters would advance to the general election. The ballot initiative was approved by 54.2 percent [results] of voters and changes elections to create a system in which all candidates for a state or federal elective office would run in a single primary regardless of political affiliation. From this, only the two candidates with the most votes would appear on the ballot in the general election. Supporters of Proposition 14 have described it as necessary [LAT report] to alleviate the strong ideological opposition in the state legislature [official website]. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger [official website], who included the ballot initiative in his 2010 budget, praised the measure [statement], describing it as a sign of a "sweeping change" and stating:

[Voters] feel very strongly that nothing gets done by this partisan bickering. And even though throughout the country you see some states going further to the right and some states go further to the left but Californian voters were fighting for the middle... And I have been saying this since I [came] into office, that we must reform the system in order to make our political leaders and politicians servants to the people and not servants to the parties, because no one can get stuck in their ideologies. Those are fundamental changes, those are huge changes that will change everything in the future. It will not solve all the problems but it will change a lot.
The new primary system has faced heavy criticism from third parties. The Green Party of California [party website] described the new system [press release] as designed to "keep dissenting voices off the ... November ballot." The six registered third parties are considering jointly filing a legal challenge on constitutional grounds before the law goes into effect in 2011.

Proposition 14 was based largely on the system used in Washington state, which was implemented there in 2004 after the passage of Initiative 872 [text, PDF]. In 2008, the US Supreme Court [official website; JURIST news archive] upheld [JURIST report] Washington's primary election system as constitutional against a First Amendment [Cornell LII backgrounder] challenge, overturning a contrary decision [opinion, PDF] by the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit [official website]. Louisiana has a similar system, but, under that system, a candidate who garners over 50 percent of the vote in the primary will forgo the general election. The passage of Proposition 14 comes as part of a larger effort by Schwarzenegger to reform the politics of the state before he leaves office in early 2011. In 2008, Proposition 11 [LAT backgrounder] was approved by 50.9 percent [results, PDF] of voters, removing the authority to redraw legislative districts from the state legislature and giving it to an independent agency comprised of an even number of Democrats and Republicans.

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Paper Chase is JURIST's real-time legal news service, powered by a team of 30 law student reporters and editors led by law professor Bernard Hibbitts at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. As an educational service, Paper Chase is dedicated to presenting important legal news and materials rapidly, objectively and intelligibly in an accessible format.

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