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CALIFORNIA REPUBLICANS NEED TO RECLAIM OUR PRIMARY

Why I Support the Fleischman Amendment to the California Republican Party Bylaws

Regional Vice Chairman, California Republican Party

August 28, 2009

[Publisher's Note:  As part of an ongoing effort to bring original, thoughtful commentary to you here at the FlashReport, I am pleased to present this column from Tom Hudson.  Hudson is Northern Vice Chairman of the California Republican Party, and Chairman of the Placer County Republican Party\ -- Flash]

If you are new to the FlashReport, please check out the main site and the acclaimed FlashReport Weblog on California politics.

At the California Republican Party Convention in Indian Wells on September 27, Republicans have a critical opportunity to put an end to disastrous mistake that has brought our state party to the brink of extinction.  We must reclaim our primary election and change our Party Bylaws so that Republican voters can once again select our Republican nominees, free from outside interference.

A decade ago, the California Republican Party foolishly decided to allow Decline-to-State voters to participate in Republican primary elections.  Ironically, we made that decision just after the U.S. Supreme Court had upheld the fundamental right of political parties to select their own nominees, in a case known as California Democratic Party v. Jones, 530 U.S. 567 (2000).  We made that terrible decision even though we knew that Decline-to-State voters actually out-numbered registered Republicans in many districts around the state, potentially giving Republicans second-class status in their own primaries.  In return for abandoning the principle that Republican voters should choose their own candidates, we were told by people who never miss an opportunity to abandon principle that we would enjoy political success like never before.  We were promised that hordes of independents would flock to our candidates once we allowed them into our primaries.

As so often happens when politicians abandon principle for short-term political gain, the gains never materialized.  Instead, the results were devastating.  In the very first election after the rule change, every Republican candidate for statewide office lost to a Democrat for the first time since 1882.  Of course, 2002 was a bad year for California Republicans, but every election year after that one got even worse.  We even lost gerrymandered “Republican seats” in the House of Representatives, the State Assembly, and the State Senate.  Our voter registration plummeted to the lowest level in our lifetimes.  We are still hanging on to 31 percent of California’s registered voters, but that number is falling fast.

To survive as a viable party, we need to do the only thing that we all know will succeed: We need to nominate high-quality candidates who will powerfully advocate our shared Republican values.  We need to nominate candidates who will provide voters with a real choice, not a weak echo of the failed Democrat policies that are destroying our state and depressing voter turnout.  To do that, we need to reclaim the right to select our own candidates.  We need to approve the Fleischman Amendment to the California Republican Party Bylaws in September!

In addition to the principled argument that Republicans should decide on their own candidates, without outside interference, there are many other pragmatic arguments in support of returning to our traditional primary elections:

First, we need to give voters a reason to register as members of the Republican Party.  Contrary to what you may have read in the mainstream media, voters are not stupid.  When they find out that they can obtain all the same voting privileges -- and more -- by registering as Decline-to-State voters, they do so.  I have registered many voters and I know from first-hand experience that they like the idea of registering Decline-to-State if that designation is the only one that will allow them to participate in whatever party primary they want.  Furthermore, many people prefer not to have their political preferences listed on the public voter rolls for everyone to see, including employers, nosy neighbors, opinionated relatives, local politicians, etc.  Registering Decline-to-State allows them to remain politically anonymous.  As a result, about half of all new voters have been choosing to register as Decline-to-State.  Even the Watergate scandal had less impact on Republican voter registration than our counter-productive decision to allow Decline-to-State voters to participate in our primary elections!  This should come as no surprise, but unless we do something about it, in a few years our Party will not have enough members left to argue about.

Frankly, the ONLY thing we can do to reverse the decline in Republican registration is to give voters a reason to register with the Republican Party.  We saw that in the closed presidential primary election of 2008: thousands of new voters joined the Republican Party so that they could vote in our presidential primary.  We need to repeat that success story in every future primary election.

Secondly, we can substantially reduce the cost of Republican campaigns by returning to traditional “closed primary” elections.  Our districts are so insanely huge that the whole concept of a republican form of government is already strained to the breaking point in California.  By increasing the size of the primary electorate to include Decline-to-State voters, we have increased the cost of campaigning and thus increased the power of the special interests that wield such dreadful control over our political system.  Our rules are forcing our own candidates to campaign at much greater cost.  These added costs put our Republican nominees at a disadvantage with respect to the Democrats because their long-term control over the Legislature gives them a fund-raising advantage and they can more easily replenish the money they spend in primary elections.  By contrast, some of our Republican nominees never recover from expensive primary campaigns and they are doomed in the general election.

Expanding the size of the primary electorate also helps wealthy individuals and celebrities at the expense of everyone else.  Increasing the cost of campaigning always reduces the number of candidates, with poor and middle class candidates dropping out first.  This might help explain why so many wealthy individuals and celebrities are demanding “open primaries.”  Needless to say, Party rules should not be designed to punish wealthy candidates, but the Republican Party has suffered so much from the stereotype that “we care only about the rich” that it makes no sense to retain a counter-productive Party rule that also increases the advantages of wealthy candidates.

The most effective thing that our State Central Committee could do to financially assist our Republican candidates would be to reduce the cost of campaigning by returning to traditional “closed primary” elections.

Third, we could save taxpayers millions and millions of dollars by adopting the Fleischman Amendment.  Every primary election cycle, our local election officials are forced to spend enormous sums of taxpayer’s money to print special ballots for Decline-to-State voters who might (but usually don’t) decide to participate in the Republican primary.  Current law, which cannot be changed for constitutional reasons, requires the creation of separate ballot types for Decline-to-State voters because they are not permitted to vote for the local Republican Central Committee candidates whose names appear on the Republican Party ballots.  Every election cycle, there are some precincts that might not have any Decline-to-State voters participating in the Republican primary election, but these special ballots must still be prepared, inspected, printed, distributed, accounted for, returned, and eventually destroyed, all at taxpayers’ expense.

This unnecessary expense is only a small fraction of the total cost of our representative form of government, but it represents the ONLY expense over which the State Central Committee of the California Republican Party has any direct control.  In this period of fiscal crisis, when public servants are being laid off and furloughed, we have a responsibility to do what little we can to reduce the cost of government.  We must not pass up this opportunity to show leadership and fiscal restraint during the present budget crisis.

Finally, we Republicans need to consider the fact that California’s primary election system is under serious attack.  Senator Abel Maldonado shamelessly traded his vote for disastrous tax increases in return for a June 2010 ballot measure that, if it passes, will eliminate party primaries entirely and replace them with a “Top Two” system in which the two candidates with the most votes would appear on the general election ballot.  In many districts, perhaps most, the top two candidates would be from the same political party and voters would have no real choice in the general election.  Although this ballot measure is sometimes called an “Open Primary” of sorts, it is clear that what it would create would be a Closed General Election.  Independents and minor party candidates might never again appear on a general election ballot and genuine political competition might disappear entirely (just like the elections in the former Soviet Union, where all the candidates were Communists and dissenters were nowhere to be found on the ballot).

Faced with that crazy proposal, we Republicans need to provide a real alternative while we still can.  We need to offer a true primary election where party members can decide for themselves which candidates they support.

Please join me in supporting the Fleischman Amendment to restore the traditional Republican primary election.

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